Vivek — who has gone from India to America, from student to doctoral candidate — is on the cusp of another big life change.
An international student studying computer science at one of Utah’s universities, Vivek moved to the United States from India in 2018, to earn his Ph.D. in his fields of interest: technology, research and artificial intelligence.
Vivek is from Rajasthan, a desert state in northern India, whose climate mirrors the summers in Utah. “Once I came here, the first few months I did feel a bit of cultural change,” said Vivek, who asked to be identified by his first name due to his residency status.
It took time to adjust to Utah’s bitter winter season, but now, he said, he feels like Utah and his personality mesh well together because he enjoys a quiet city life.
It’s been five years, and Vivek is set to get his doctorate, though the process is arduous. With graduation looming, he faces another obstacle: Finding a job — which, as an international student, is complicated because he needs to find a company that will sponsor his H-1B visa.
The H-1B visa is designed to let employers hire “nonimmigrant aliens” (the federal government’s term) to work in specialized jobs — such as the tech and medical sectors.
With Utah’s unemployment rate at 2.2%, employers here often rely on the H-1B visa holders to fill jobs in those specialized sectors. But experts in immigration law say the H-1B visa process that begins in March — a lottery where hundreds of thousands of applicants try to claim around 85,000 spots every year — is antiquated, overly complex and expensive for both the international applicants and the companies hiring them.
“We’re sending a very bad message when we tell people, ‘You can come and spend money and educate yourself and get a degree, but then after you get the degree and you can only work for a year and then you’re out of here if you don’t win the lottery,’” said Jacob Muklewicz, an immigration and visa lawyer who once worked with Silicon Slopes companies.
Crunching the numbers
International students with a four-year bachelor’s degree or equivalent qualify for the H-1B lottery process, Muklewicz said. Each year, there are 85,000 spots available — 65,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree, and another 20,000 for people, like Vivek, with a master’s degree or doctorate from a U.S. college or university.
The number of H-1B visas is set by Congress, Muklewicz said — and in the early 2000s, the annual limit was around 195,000. Back then, he said, it was rare that the cap was reached.
Now, there are typically more than 200,000 visa applicants for the 65,000 bachelor’s degree slots, so U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have companies use a random lottery for applications.
For companies, the process can be expensive — Forbes reported in 2021 that a company may have to pay $32,000 for an initial visa filing — and time-consuming.
“It’s a very bureaucratic, multi-step process,” Muklewicz said.
First, an employer has to register in March to get a lottery slot, which can take three weeks. (That system was added during the Trump administration, to help with the large number of application filings.)
Once a company registration is accepted, the company then has to get a Labor Condition Application certified — which takes another two weeks, Muklewicz said. Finally, a company files an H-1B petition with USCIS, and approval can take 15 days, but usually longer.
Vivek said that when international students are looking for a job, the goal is to find a job doing what they enjoy — and, secondly, to find a company that will help employees navigate the paperwork.
Vivek said he knows people who were always stressed around the application time, anxious about what might happen. “It’s not just once,” he said. “If you get rejected, [you] have to do it again and again … because then there is no guarantee.”
It can seem to applicants that it comes down to luck. According to data from the Institute of International Education, during the 2021-2022 academic year, there were 948,519 international students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities. That’s a lot of students in the pipeline for jobs and H-1B visas over the next few years.
There is another option for students using the common F-1 visa: The Optional Practical Training (OPT) for up to a year, which allows them to receive employment authorization in their area of study.
Is the immigration process outdated?
The visa process and immigration law hasn’t been updated in decades, which also contributes to the chaos of the H-1B process, according to Shadman Bashir, the director of the international office at Utah Tech University.
Bashir went through the visa process himself when he came to the United States from Pakistan in 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks. Before working at Utah Tech, he was a law professor who had a focus in immigration.
Bashir lived through the struggles of the immigration process for the next decade of his life, he said. Some of that involved his religious background, he said, without providing details. Eventually, after a law firm filed for a H-1B visa for him, he got his green card 10 years later.
“Pretty much lived in libraries, slept in my car, anything that you can see from that textbook immigrant struggle,” Bashir said, looking back. “[I was] making sure my family didn’t know what I was going through.”
His first job was selling shoes at a Macy’s in Las Vegas. Now, he works to elevate the experiences of international students at Utah Tech, where he likes to think outside the box. When he first started at Utah Tech, there were 27 international students. Now, there are around 60.
They face difficulties, though, and Bashir said part of the problem is that in Canada, the United Kingdom and some European countries, international students can work off campus — where in the United States, there’s no such policy.
“Put yourself in international students’ shoes,” he explains. “You’re always paying out-of-state tuition. If you come from a developing country, your wants and needs are different. … Take that and look at how difficult it is for someone to come to the U.S. and generate almost three times more fees than domestic students and they cannot work [off campus].”
Still, Bashir said he marvels at the changes over the years for international students. For example, when he came to the United States, there was no concept of scholarships for international students.
How employers see H-1B
Muklewicz noted that the H-1B process favors colleges and universities. For example, some universities are exempt from the lottery process, he said, “to encourage research and development at academic institutions.”
Two such academic institutions — the University of Utah and ARUP Laboratories, a nonprofit enterprise at the U — are, according to the data site H1B Grader, two of the five top employers in Utah for H-1B visa sponsorship in 2022. (The others were Goldman Sachs, Overstock and Adobe.)
Jeff Herring, chief human resources officer at the U, said because the school is a Tier I research university, they recruit people with specialized skills. The University of Utah now has around 250 employees in H-1B status.
“Most of our H-1B visas are researchers, faculty, Ph.D.s, physicians — so highly specialized technical skills,” he said. Finding people with those qualifications, he said, is balanced against the extra time and costs that go into the H-1B hiring process.
At ARUP Laboratories, said Tom Topik, the company’s human resources officer, “Our most critical positions in our company are medical laboratory scientists.” He said the H-1B visa program has been a game changer for the company, because those scientists perform critical functions.
“There would be a significant impact to our business operations if we didn’t have the H-1B program in place,” Topik said.
The employee onboarding process can take longer because of visa delays, Topik said, but the company is patient with potential employees because they recognize their worth. It would be ideal, he said, if the process could be more streamlined.
Those with more advanced degrees like Vivek have a better chance at getting jobs, but it’s still competitive. Vivek said that, especially during a recession, research positions at companies are the first to be cut.
Utah is known for its tech start-ups, but Vivek said a lot of those companies are focused on producing products, not supporting research.
The question of why private enterprises and for-profit companies don’t get the same exemption from the federal government, Muklewicz said, is ultimately a political decision.
And, Bashir noted, for smaller companies, the cost of sponsoring an H-1B is steep, even if they get a lottery slot. “There is more awareness of the hiccups of the system because the companies feel the pinch,” Bashir said. “The companies that hire these workers, they’re the ones who feel the pinch if the process is more complicated, or if they cannot retain these workers.”
Muklewicz also argued against the misconception that H-1B visas and international workers hike up wage depression or steal American jobs.
“What’s important to remember is that the H-1B’s are temporary work visas, they are green cards,” he said. “When someone gets an H-1B, the general max out limit is six years. … When people play by the rules, the exact opposite of wage depression takes place.”
Should the cap be lifted?
Muklewicz, who now lives in Poland, said he was active in Silicon Slopes when he lived in Utah. Pre-pandemic, he said, “on average, each year there were 4,000 vacancies and high-tech jobs in Utah that couldn’t be filled.”
“Employers were desperate to recruit on campus. They wanted to hire international students,” Muklewicz said. “But they [couldn’t] and the reason why is because of the lottery quota. … It makes no sense to say that we’re a free-market economy, but we put these artificial caps.”
Muklewicz said he would like to see the cap go away entirely, because it’s at odds with the idea of having diversity, equity and inclusion at companies.
“Why wouldn’t we want these people to stay in the United States, make six-figure salaries, and pay local and state and federal taxes?” Muklewicz asked.
Vivek said the looming recession will be particularly hard for international students like him, and those who only have bachelor’s degrees.
“For students, you are alone and you have to somehow survive. That can be hard,” Vivek said. “For other citizens and permanent residents, they at least [have] more options.”
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