By Marissa Cardenas, Yangyang Duan, Annika Hom and Max Reyes
Mario dreams of using his doctorate to teach. But Mario — who asked not to use his last name because he feared possible retaliation — finds he has limited options. He fears that the jobs offered in the South American country he comes from would be unfulfilling, since they don’t require a PhD degree.
“It doesn’t make sense. We are not coming to have a PhD and (to) end up working at a high school. It gives you some kind of prestige because you are a scholar.”
Mario studies human security and global governance at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He wants to teach in the United States, which he says has a better economy than his home country and will allow him to fully capitalize on his degree. But current immigration policy will likely prevent him from doing so.
After President Trump took office in 2017, his administration has taken a more stringent stance on which immigrants can study and work in the United States.
In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security issued 644,233 F-1 visas. By 2018, the government issued 362,929, a 44 percent decrease.
Administration officials have also increasingly challenged applications for visas meant for skilled workers, a key entry point into the U.S. workforce for international students.
For nearly 70,000 international students enrolled in colleges in Massachusetts, that means their ability to remain and work legally in the United States is uncertain.
The Campus Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston is where students gather to study. Hanging on the railings are flags of different countries. Annika Hom.
During an interview for a position at a university in Boston, Mario was asked about his current visa status. He explained that he had an F-1 visa and was allowed to work temporarily under a type of work authorization called curricular practical training.
Mario said this explanation was not what the employer expected.
“I noticed that people are expecting to hear, ‘Oh yes, I can come tomorrow if you need me to get the contract.’ But in my case you have all the explanations and say, ‘Oh, I need to talk to my advisor,’” Mario said. “So I had the feeling that may make me less competitive, even though I could have better credentials to work in that position.”
Applying for and acquiring a work visa, usually an H1-B, is one of the primary ways for a graduating international student to remain in the country, according to Jennifer Minear, an immigration attorney based in Richmond, Virginia. Data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security showed those are decreasing, too.
Only a few jobs qualify for H1-B visas, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Other than fashion models, a company must prove that the jobs given out require at least a bachelor’s degree in education, is in a specialized industry, and cannot be done by an American worker.
“There’s…increased scrutiny and difficulty in getting the H1-B,” Minear said. “And that makes it difficult for students who want to transition.”
Companies must pay for an employee’s H1-B visa for them to work legally, causing some to rethink hiring international students.
“Universities don’t want to actually get involved in all of these procedures to sponsor,” Mario said.
He worries that without a job he will not be able to provide for his wife, who is also a foreign national and has a visa that bars her from working. This could impede the couple’s plans to buy a house and start a family.
“Now I need to plan for the future,” he said.
International undergraduates in Boston also echo Mario’s discouragement.
Career fairs can be a constant reminder of a company’s reluctance to hire foreign workers according to Henry Liu, a junior (cq) Singapore national studying at Boston University.
“I was at a BU career fair,” Liu said. “Sometimes you hear, ‘We don’t sponsor additional assistance regarding working in the states.’”
Jiawei Wu, a sophomore Chinese student enrolled at Boston University, longed to work for the NASA SpaceX program and enrolled in BU’s applied math program with that specific goal in mind. However, when researching the position at NASA, Wu quickly realized his status would be an issue.
“I really want to do something in physics and rocket science, but since it’s a sensitive topic, it’s very hard for me to find a job in that field,” Wu said. “So I am slowly shifting to (a focus on) finance.”
International students can work using an Optional Practical Training program, which allows them to work an American job in the field of their study for up to 12 months. Students must also finish all 12 months of practical training within 14 months of graduation, though in special cases OPT can be extended.
Curricular Practical Training and some limited on-campus employment are allowed for F-1 visas too, according to USCIS. Students studying science, technology, engineering and math have an extra two years in OPT if they apply and find a company willing to sponsor them.
But while practicing immigration law, Minear said she witnessed the increased difficulties for clients to get a work visa. She said even if companies decide to sponsor an international employee, the government can deny the request.
Those challenges increase costs for employers sponsoring students and can discourage them from sponsoring students in the future.
“The idea is that if (they) make it hard enough, everybody will just leave,” Minear said. “And what we’re seeing is that not only are people leaving after they graduate, but a lot of students are choosing not to come here (to) study.”
Between fiscal year 2016 and fiscal year 2018, the percentage of denials jumped by 140 percent, according to the nonpartisan research group National Foundation for American Policy. The denial rate reached 33 percent by July of 2019, according to another report by the foundation.
Defne Morova enrolled at Boston University for international relations and psychology in 2016, just a few months shy of Trump’s election win. She said she felt back then it was easier for her and her friends to acquire F-1 visas.
“Knowing all of this, like the immigration policies and [expletive]. I spent my four years here to have a job here, and knowing that’s not a guarantee… it’s very disappointing.” Morova said.
As a Turkish national on the cusp of graduation, she said she does not want to work in Turkey because of instability and distance she feels to the culture. Her desire to work in nonprofits also won’t pan out how she wants there, she said, because of corruption, causing her to try to stay in the United States.
“It seemed like in the U.S., there would be more opportunities for me,” Morova said. “But now I don’t know.”
Wenling Ding, a Chinese student studying communication and business at UMass Boston, said she felt upset that she and other international students may have less opportunities to get work permits.
“I feel panic when thinking about finding jobs back in China. I will be so unfamiliar with the working environment there,” Ding said. “But I understand (Trump’s) standpoint as a U.S. citizen.”
But not every international student shares Ding and Mario’s desire to work in the U.S.
Although leaving the United States would cost Wu his dream career of working at NASA, he’s staying optimistic.
“If I can’t stay here, I’ll just go back home and find a job there. It’s not like China is like, way worse than here.”
Liu, the Singaporean BU junior, isn’t worried, either. The U.S. government offers a pathway for Singapore nationals specifically to acquire another type of work visa. His cultural exchange study in the U.S., too, prepared him for new cultures, he said.
“I really don’t mind working anywhere around the world, as long as it’s a job I like and its safe there,” Liu said. “I don’t mind relocating to Rio De Janeiro, U.S. is not an absolute … but I would [stay] if the best job was here in the States.”
As 2019 ends and internship and job season starts up, these students still stay hopeful that they will find the magic company that agrees to sponsor their visas in their field. But for many like Mario, it looks bleak.
“Sometimes,” Mario said, “we have the feeling that we are abandoned.”