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University grapples with suspension of expedited H-1B visa processing

University faculty, alums face possible eight-month waiting period to get employment visa

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2017

On Apr. 3, the Trump administration suspended the expedited approval process for H-1B visas, the employment visas given to highly skilled and educated people, including Brown’s international students, alums and faculty members. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services suspended the premium processing option for H-1B visas, which shortens the wait for the visa to 15 days, for up to six months.

The University uses the H-1B visa to hire faculty, visiting researchers and staff members, said Elke Breker, director of the Office of International Students and Scholar Services. Applicants may now have to wait six to eight months for a decision on their application through regular processing, she added.

The suspension not only impacts the University’s hiring but also makes the job search more difficult for international students, said President Christina Paxson P’19 in an interview with CNBC in Hong Kong. The cancellation of premium processing for H-1B visas “may have more of an impact than the (immigration ban),” which only impacts about 20 to 30 students at Brown, Paxson said to CNBC.

After the USCIS announced the temporary cancellation of premium processing in March, Brown’s OISSS rushed to file H-1B extensions and new petitions before the suspension was enacted, Breker said. The University prioritized applicants with more urgent needs, such as employees currently outside the United States who need a visa to re-enter the country, scholars on J-1 visas who required a status change to H-1B, or students on F-1 visas hired by Brown as part of their optional practical training provision, Breker said.

University “faculty who are hired now may not be able to get an H-1B visa in time to start work in July,” said immigration attorney Dan Berger. OISSS will continue to submit H-1B petitions through regular processing, Breker added.

The stated intent of the suspension is to process the long backlog of regular applicants that resulted from the “high volume of incoming petitions and the significant surge in premium processing requests over the past few years,” according to the March USCIS announcement.

The suspension “may also need to be looked (at) from the context of … the hiring freeze that (USCIS) is experiencing,” Breker said. “It’s difficult to add new officers at this point, so they are working with existing staff as well.”

“Of course our hope is that the temporary suspension will” not last for the entire six months, she said.

For current international students hoping to settle in the United States post-graduation, getting an H-1B visa is not easy — even with the premium processing option. Even if a student finds an employer who is willing to submit a petition, there is no guarantee they will receive an H-1B visa. Once the number of applications exceeds the maximum number of H-1B visas to be distributed in that year, visas are distributed by random lottery. Last year, the cap of 85,000 H-1B visas were randomly distributed amongst 236,000 petitions. This year, the cap remains the same: 65,000 visas for regular applicants and 20,000 reserved for applicants with a U.S. master’s degree or higher.

This cap does not affect University hires, since there is no cap on the number of  H-1B visas given to individuals who are sponsored by universities, non-profits and government research organizations, according to a USCIS press release.

The suspension also poses a problem for those who will need to extend their H-1B visas, Berger said. After the first three years on the H-1B visa, candidates can petition for an extension of three years. While waiting for a petition, candidates can continue working for up to 240 days, Breker said. In several states, applicants and their dependents may not be able to extend their driver’s licenses during the filing process, leading to major inconveniences. In addition, those filing for extensions cannot leave the country.

“It’s a really big problem for healthcare because doctors who work in medically underserved areas need H-1B visas quickly” for training residencies and fellowships, Berger added.

Etienne Ma ’13, who is filing for an extension this year, was told by his employer’s law firm that his documents needed to be submitted “faster than they normally would” — before the suspension was enacted in April — in order to undergo premium processing.

After graduation, all international students on an F-1 visa can work for one year in the United States through optional practical training. On top of that, STEM graduates can potentially secure up to an additional 24 months of post-completion optional practical training, wrote Breker in an email to The Herald.

Students in STEM fields, especially in technology, “have a higher likelihood of finding an employer who would sponsor an H-1B visa,” CareerLAB Director Mathew Donato said.

“There are certain industries that are far more willing to sponsor international students,” such as “software engineering, consulting, and investment banking,” Ma said.

“But it happens in other industries as well, … so we just want to be sure that students have realistic expectations,” Donato said. International students might alternatively consider about international employment first, then returning to the United States “when there might be an opportunity to get sponsored again” on an H-1B visa, Donato said.

Sara Al-Salem ’17 worries about returning to her home country of Saudi Arabia, where she enjoys fewer freedoms as a woman — but she may not have a choice. As an international relations concentrator who is not looking for employment in STEM or finance, Al-Salem feels like she is at a disadvantage. Recently, an interviewer told Al-Salem that though she was his favorite candidate, she would be at a significant disadvantage because of her visa status.

CareerLAB will try to offer more global internship offerings, Donato said. Provost Richard Locke has expressed interest in this initiative, and it has also spoken with Dean of the College Maud Mandel and the Office of Global Engagement, he said. CareerLAB plans to launch new international internship programs for students over the next three to five years, Donato said.

Toward that effort, CareerLAB aims to partner more with OISSS and the Office of Global Engagement. Next year, CareerLAB plans to host a CareerCon for international students.

“We definitely want to increase our commitment and support of the international students, and we’re hoping that the new programs will do that,” Donato said.

“We see this, and all of the executive actions that impact immigration … as really counter to our values,” said Assistant Provost for Global Engagement and Strategic Iniatives Shankar Prasad.

“(Trump’s) policies are sending out a message to the world that international students may not be welcome in the U.S., and I think it’s very important for presidents like me to get out there and say, ‘At Brown University, we want international students,’” Paxson said to CNBC.

CareerLAB plans to host an event about summer internships and experiential learning options for international students, especially for students who might not be able to go home as previously planned because of President Trump’s executive order, Donato said.