Staying in the U.S. Proves a Challenge for International Grads

Students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln actuarial science career fair. (Photo by Joy Carey, NET News)
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January 13, 2016 - 6:45am

International students who want to stay in the United States after college have a lot of competition. Two U.S. senators have introduced a bill that would tighten the limit on a popular category of visas, at the same time that applications for those visas are breaking records.


Students like Leland Chow are hoping for more than just an education in America. Originally from Malaysia, Chow is a junior finance major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who says he wants to live in the U.S. long term.

 “If I could stay for a long time, even my whole life I definitely would be willing to,” Chow said. “It’s been my dream actually to live here if I can.”

Chow says he wants to stay in the U.S. because there are more opportunities here than in his home country. But as an international student, getting a job after graduation involves a demanding process of paperwork.

 “If a student wanted to work off campus in any capability, whether it’s an internship or just to get experience, they have to have authorizations,” said Alexandra Jones from UNL’s international student office.

Jones says there are different types of authorization, but what these students are really looking for after graduation is an H-1B visa. It allows international workers to stay in the U.S. for up to six years in a job related to their degree. But first, students like Chow need to find an employer who will sponsor them.

Leland Chow is one of many international students hoping for a work visa after college graduation. But the competition is stiff, and the application intimidating. (Photo by Joy Carey, NET News)

“If I want to stay here I have to get a job first, and get sponsored,” Chow said. “If I don’t within 60 days I would have to go back to Malaysia.”

‘Getting sponsored’ means a company offers Chow a job, then submits paperwork to the U.S. government applying for the visa on his behalf.

Once Chow connects with an employer, there’s still a fair bit of luck involved. The United States limits the number of these visas granted each year, and candidates are chosen at random in an annual lottery.

The government offers a total of 85,000 H-1B visas. In December, two U.S. senators proposed a bill that would cut 15,000 of those spots, and give preference to workers making the most money.

Meanwhile, the number of applications for H-1Bs has been rising dramatically, largely because of demand for workers in technology fields. In the last several lotteries, the allotted visas for the entire year were filled within a week. In 2013, the U.S. government received 124,000 applications. The next year, 172,000 applications. In 2015, nearly 233,000 applications – putting an individual’s chances at winning the visa lottery close to one-third.

You can read more about proposed H-1B cuts here,or take a look at an application here.

One UNL student who made it through the lottery was Emily Chan, originally from Malaysia. Chan was hired by the insurance company Cigna after working there as an intern. She says getting work approval involved a lot of confusion about paperwork.

“It was just stressful, like, ‘What if I don’t get the visa? Does it mean I don’t get the internship?’” Chan said. “I had this opportunity right in front of me and I might miss it because of visa stuff. At the time of school I was incredibly stressed out.”

Still, opportunities for these students are out there. Kyle Bruss of Lincoln-based Talent Plus says his company has hired many employees from other countries.

“My experience has been good in that I love to hire talented individuals,” Bruss said. “Doesn’t really matter where they’re from. If we find that individual and it happens to be that they’re an international student then we go ‘Ok, how are we going to do this? What are some of the different hurdles we have to jump?’”

One hurdle for companies is cost. If a company wants to sponsor an international student, the basic fees can amount to more than $2,000. If a company needs help from an immigration lawyer to figure out the paperwork, it will cost even more. And once the company applies, their candidate still has to make it through the visa lottery.

“I think that hiring international students provides a great deal of value for an organization,” Bruss said. “But you’ve got to have a plan and know what you’re getting yourself into.”

In spite of all the red tape, these students have a diversity of experience and skills many employers want. For example, Talent Plus has an office in Singapore and clients around the world, making language skills extra valuable.

“In working with international students I’ve met some amazing people,” said Chris Timm from UNL Career Services. “They’re crazy smart, they’re multilingual, they have experience in their home country, and then to have them not get opportunities breaks my heart.”

So why is the visa process so complicated? Alexandra Jones from the International Student office at UNL said the number of groups involved is one factor. Kyle Bruss suggested a variety of reasons.

“I think it’s a mix of national security, of American business. It’s a mix of ensuring that Americans are working every single day,” Bruss said. “It’s government bureaucracy, it’s red tape, and forms, forms, forms, forms.”

For Leland Chow, the job search continues.

“I’m still currently looking for internships, and for future full-time positions, but chances are getting slimmer and slimmer.”

Right now, Chow is still in classes and is considering grad school. With proposed cuts to the H-1B limit and an ever-increasing demand, it’s hard to predict exactly what the visa market will look like when he graduates in a year.

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