- Even if they manage to obtain their degrees during the pandemic, Trump’s work visa policies preclude their future in the U.S.
The American dream for many South Asians has been put in jeopardy in the recent months. Lurching from one policy crisis to another, many South Asian students in the U.S. are looking at their future with trepidation.
In June, President Trump temporarily suspended new work visas (H1-B) and barred hundreds of thousands of foreigners from seeking employment in the United States, as part of a broad effort to limit entry of immigrants into the country and ensure that Americans are first in line for scarce jobs. This order specifically targets H1-B and H-4 visas, which are primarily used by workers in the tech industry and their families.
According to a report in the New York Times, combined with existing restrictions on the issuance of new green cards, this ban would keep as many as 525,000 foreign workers out of the country. Although this order came under fire from business leaders, many South Asians faced panic and uncertainty. Some even had their visas run out and had to relocate back to India.
Right behind it, came the Trump administration’s proposed stipulations for the F1 (international student) visa that would have required international students to take at least one in-person class in order to prevent their visas from being revoked. This, at a time when many universities around the country were embracing virtual learning in the face of the pandemic. Seen as a pressure tactic by the White House to force universities to open in-person teaching, this directive also caused uncertainty and fear for the hundreds of thousands of international students who rely on student visas.
However, under intense public pressure and outrage, the Trump administration has rescinded its policy.
Says Emory University graduate student in the Department of Public Health, with a specilization in environmental health, Sharavani Mathur (name changed on request), “It’s definitely a relief but I feel like these are testing times.” This sentiment holds true for many international students who come to the United States in search of the American dream – an education and ultimately, a good job.
But the future is still uncertain for many international students. Questions that are still up in the air include, will they get jobs after graduation, will they be able to convert their F1 visa to an OPT (optional practical training), and then secure the much sought after H1-B visa and ultimately, a green card.
“A lot still needs to change,” Shravani adds, wondering if another policy change would be coming down the pipeline which would, given the recent rising unemployment rates add to the uncertainty of being hired.
This recent executive order and news of students being detained at airports along with H1-B and H-4 visa directives has caused trepidation among the South Asian community, many of whom are international students.
Neel Khokhani, originally from Ahmedabad, who is about to start his final MS semester in biotechnology at the University of Texas, San Antonio, is worried and frustrated with the new proposed directives. “We (international students), especially those that are about to graduate don’t know how to adapt to these numerous changes. Many students like me are few credits shy of graduating and are wondering how they will cope if they have to go back.”
Neel continues, “The H1-B (work visa) has been suspended and there’s been no update on when it’s going to resume. If a student goes back now, they won’t have a chance to come back to the U.S. to find a job, in this political climate. This is a huge challenge, since many international students have taken loans to pay school fees. I currently have a job on campus (as a teaching assistant) but if I go back, I won’t have any job. No money and I have student loans on my head.”
And he is not alone in his frustration and anxiety.
Deepak Agarwal, 35, a non-traditional PhD student at Emory University in Atlanta says, “Instead of focusing on how to face the pandemic and manage it, we are dealing with these new unwanted challenges.”
In the United States with a wife and son on a dependent visa, Rajasthan native Deepak put his career in Hyderabad on hold to come to pursue his degree in business administration. These new policy directives have put him in a quandary. “I came here for a PhD, which is a 5-year commitment. I made it for my career. I see other youngsters, masters students that have moved here with loans, financial commitments, to learn and to grow. And this directive is not only restricted to the F1 visa. I can see how in the future it can be connected to the H1-B visa too,” he says.
Deepak adds, “After completing our education here, international students do 1-2 years of training on an OPT, which is also uncertain now, due to the rising unemployment numbers. So, getting a job is difficult for graduating students nowadays. But I was still relaxed as I thought even if I don’t get a job here, no problem. I can go back to India and resume my career. I would be happy taking what I learnt from here back. But now learning itself is impacted. The administration is creating roadblocks in getting an education. I never thought I’d see F-1 visa and the OPT being an issue,” he ruefully says.
Emory University too, along with 110 other colleges and universities had filed an amicus brief in support of the federal OPT program, which allows international students to work in a U.S-based job directly related to their field of study citing that “OPT provides untold benefits for international students. But, just as critical, the OPT gives American institutions an edge in an increasingly competitive global education market.”
Emory graduate student from Chennai, Shravani Mathur (name changed) points out that with these new ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and regulations and recent H1-B stipulations, the job market is harder for international students. “Getting jobs for international students has been an issue for the longest time, even before these new ICE directives and recent H1-B stipulations.”
She explains that many companies are weary of hiring foreign students because they don’t want to undertake the lengthy and expensive process of sponsoring an H1-B visa. “At career fairs, they just say straight out — not hiring international students. I sometimes wonder if all this is even worth it. In fact, my sister, who graduated from the University of Houston and is on her one-year OPT, is having a hard time finding a job during these economic hard times and being an international student.”
And whether or not one currently is on an F-1 visa or not, or is waiting for an H1-B visa to open up, the frustrations are palpable. Says Seema Kumar (name changed on request), who graduated in Human Computer Interface in 2018, from a Top Ten US University (name withheld on request), “This is emotionally draining.”
Seema, a recent victim of being laid off during the pandemic and who was returning to Mumbai, on July 20 as her OPT has run out, says, “There was a certain potential employer I was speaking with, but they said it could be a problem for the immigration team to consider me as a candidate because at the time, I had only 11 months left on my F-1 visa and they did not want to proceed with my candidacy because of the new H1-B rule.”
20-year-old Kimaya Colaco, a rising junior, pursuing a BS in computer science at Georgia Tech, Atlanta, and who is currently back home in Bangalore, says, “We decided to study in the U.S. because of the opportunities. Some of the best minds from around the world attend U.S. universities. We pay higher fees. Put large portions of our family savings into the American economy. We leave our homes and families for years. We work extremely hard to fight for opportunities to work at companies that would rather not be involved with visa sponsorship and would rather take domestic students. After all of this, we become casualties in political policies. Additionally, the rules are vague and constantly changing. There is no one to reach out to for clarification, because no one knows the full story. Those who have chosen to make the U.S. their temporary home are still treated like second-class citizens. It is unfair and exhausting.”
It is not just students, but international faculty that have echoed these anxieties and frustrations.
Says Dr. Vinod Kulathamani, 42, former Associate Professor of Computer Science at West Virginia University, who is currently a Senior Scientist at Amazon, in Boston, “Overall, these directives create a sense of uncertainty for students, who are well into their programs. I am glad to hear that the decision has now been reversed.”
Dr. Kulathamani, who came to the United States on an F-1 visa in 1999 adds, “For the universities, it is detrimental because in many cases the students are vital for completing research projects and often play a critical role in securing new research funding. Therefore, losing these students is likely to make the universities short staffed in research and education.”
According to an article by Stuart Anderson in Forbes magazine, immigrants have been awarded nearly 40% of the Nobel Prizes won by Americans in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics since 2000.
Dr. Kulathamani strengthens this argument as he points out that, “The F-1 program has been a win-win for both the international students as well as the US universities and economy. A large portion of technological innovations that have taken place in the last couple of decades can be singularly traced back to the F-1 visa program and the subsequent OPT option.”
Summing up the situation Dr. Kulathamani says, “I believe that the new stipulations are short sighted and for a large part politically motivated. It should be remembered that these students are here on merit, not mercy.”
For now, students may sit back and breathe a sigh of relief, if only for the moment. As Shravani points out, “Don’t get complacent. We hope this lasts and there are no new stipulations in the future. However, policies like these have definitely highlighted our visa insecurities.”
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her masters and PhD in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.