China stu­dents strug­gle with US work visas

Los Angeles Times - - SHANGHAI - ( Jiang Bi­jun is a stu­dent from Shang­hai now study­ing at Columbia Univer­sit y.) Jiang Bi­jun

On a Fri­day in early spring, a lunchtime crowd fills the food court of Brook­field Place, a lower Man­hat­tan of­fice com­plex. Yang Guoke, a tall, thin 25- year- old from China, clad in jeans and grey sweater, stands in front of the Blue Rib­bon, a sushi bar.

“Shall we have sushi for lunch?” he asks his friends. “It is sort of Asian.”

His cheer­ful de­meanor is in con­trast to his mood a year ear­lier, when he was on the brink los­ing his grasp of the Amer­i­can dream af­ter fail­ing to get an H- 1B visa, the doc­u­ment al­low­ing for­eign st udents to work in the US.

Yang, who is from Chengdu of south­west China’s Sichuan Province a nd grad­u­ated from Columbia Univer­sit y’s en­gi­neer­ing school in 2013, is not alone i n the strug­gle of Chi­nese stu­dents seeki ng to stay in the US to work. Jobs are pretty easy to fi nd. The visa is the stum­bling block.

The US is host to more than 350,000 st udents from China, ac­count­ing for nearly one- third of for­eign en­rollees, ac­cord­ing to a quar­terly rev iew from the US I mmi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment for the pe­riod from Oc­to­ber 2014 to Fe­bru­ary 2015.

The cap for this year’s H- 1B visas, which al­low US em­ploy­ers to tem­po­rar­ily hire for­eign work­ers in “spe­cialty oc­cu­pa­tions,” is 85,000, ac­cord­ing to the US Cit­i­zen­ship and I mmi­gra­tion Serv ices. It has re­ceived 233,000 ap­pli­ca­tions for the visa. When ap­pli­ca­tions ex­ceed slots avail­able, a lottery is held.

Last May, Yang sat in a cu­bi­cle at the head­quar­ters of Bar­clays Bank as a se­nior man­ager told him the bank could not conti nue his em­ploy­ment be­cause he didn’t get a visa. With­out the bank’s con­tin­ued spon­sor­ship of his ef­forts to se­cure a visa, he faced the prospect of be­ing sent back to China.

“I didn’t want to talk to any­one or do any­thing,” he says of his feel­ings af­ter re­ceiv­ing the news. “I needed some time to soak up the in­for­ma­tion.”

It took Yang three weeks to fully re­cover from the shock and de­cided not to give up. He un­der­took a job search for an em­ployer that might spon­sor a sec­ond at­tempt at the H- 1B visa. He fi­nally was hi red by EXL Ser­vice, an in­ter­na­tional con­sult­ing fi rm.

For many Amer­ica n em­ploy­ers, t he pa­per­work i nvolved with the visa isn’t worth the cost or trou­ble. They have to en­sure that the em­ploy­ees have the skills to qual­ify for a “spe­cialty oc­cu­pa­tion,” and they aren’t happy about train­ing a new em­ployee only to have hi m st uck with­out a visa to con­tinue work.

“There is no way small busi­nesses can af­ford it,” says Charit Agrawal, an EXL man­ager who has dealt with many cases l i ke Yang’s. Though EXL is a multi­na­tional com­pany with about 20,000 em­ploy­ees i n eight coun­tries, it has be­come ver y cau­tious about hir­ing for­eign­ers l iv i ng on tem­po­rary v isas i n the US, t urn­ing i nstead to over­seas hir­ing.

Jason Jia, an i mmi­gra­tion at­tor­ney at Yer­man & As­so­ci­ates LLC i n New York, points out another em­ployer prob­lem.

“They of­ten can’t find enough good can­di­dates,” he says. “Most em­ploy­ers spon­sor­ing H- 1B em­ploy­ees seek can­di­dates with science a nd engi neeri ng back­grounds. There aren’t enough do­mes­tic stu­dents study­ing i n those fields to keep pace with de­mand.”

Ac­cord­ing to newly re­leased data from the US Stu­dent and Ex­change Visi­tor Pro­gram, the most pop­u­lar ma­jors among Chi­nese stu­dents in the US are busi­ness, ma n a ge ment, mar­ket­ing; com­puter and in­for­ma­tion sciences; and lib­eral arts and sciences, gen­eral stud­ies and hu­man­i­ties.

Ma Ou, from Bei­jing, now an as­sis­tant de­signer at Ralph Lau­ren, grad­u­ated last year from the Fash­ion I nsti­tute of Tech­nolog y, one of the best de­sign schools i n Amer­ica. Her tal­ent i mpressed some of the lead­ing fash­ion houses, but lack of a work v i sa dashed a ny hopes t hat she could joi n t hem. When she was a stu­dent, she says the hu­man re­sources de­part­ments of com­pa­nies “con­stantly ap­proached me, of­fer­ing me in­ter­views. But once I men­tioned that I needed worki ng visa spon­sor­ship, that ended the ap­proach. It hap­pened to me at least 10 times dur­ing the re­cruit­ment sea­son.”

How­ever, dif­fer­ent from Yang, Ma chose another path. She de­cided to seek an O- 1 visa, which is even harder to get be­cause it’s re­served for in­di­vid­u­als with “ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity or achieve­ment.” Be­sides all the ma­te­ri­als needed to prove she met those re­quire­ments, Ma had to get rec­om­men­da­tion s f rom i ndust r y pro­fes­sion­als.

Though men­tally pre­pared for rejection, she sti l l per­sisted. I n the end, she was fort unate. The i mmi­gra­tion of­fice of­fi­cially i nformed Ma ear­lier this month that she would be al­lowed to work as an i nde­pen­dent con­trac­tor, mean­ing t hat she can now work for fash­ion houses and start her own brand.

Many Chi­nese stu­dents l i ke Yang, who fa i l to ob­tain H- 1B v isas, ta ke another stab at the visa process. Oth­ers si mply give up and re­turn home.

The num­ber of over­seas st udents who ret urned to China dou­bled i n the past t wo years to about 364,800 i n 2014, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion.

One of them is Mao Sai, 26, who helped found China Chengxin Credit I nfor­ma­tion i n Beiji ng. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from an op­er­a­tion re­search pro­gram at Columbia i n 2013, Mao ac­cepted a job of­fer from the rat­ings agency Moody’s Corp and started plan­ning his new l i fe i n New York. Con­vinced he would get an H- 1B visa, he even bought an apart­ment i n Man­hat­tan.

When the roof fell on his dreams, Mao says, “I was strug­gling,” says Mao. “At that ti me, some friends back i n China were ta l ki ng about sta rt i ng a new com­pany to pro­vide credit rat­ings con­sul­tancy for bank loans. It matched my back­ground, so I de­cided to go back.” Mao says it was the right de­ci­sion. “Since I re­turned, I have learned more than I ever did dur­ing my enti re t i me at Moody’s,” he says. “The way Chi­nese ban ks i ssue loans is largely di ffer­ent from that of the US. If I had waited five or si x years to re­turn, it would have been harder for me to adapt to the work­ing en­vi­ron­ment here.”

April brought a new round of H- 1B ap­pli­ca­tions, and Yang once again de­cided to try his luck.

On May 4, US author­i­ties sent him an e- mail say­ing that the of­fice had com­pleted send­ing out con­fir­ma­tion no­tices to cho­sen ap­pli­cants. Yang hadn’t re­ceived one. He felt mo­rose. Then, on May 12, an e- mail ar­rived say­ing his ap­pli­ca­tion had been suc­cess­ful.

Yang has de­cided to write a book about his ex­pe­ri­ence in the hopes that it might give guid­ance and even hope to other soon- to- grad­u­ate for­eign stu­dents.

Stu­dents from China at­tend com­mence­ment at Columbia Univer­sity in New York. — Jiang Bi­jun

Yang Guoke, a Columbia Univer­sity grad­u­ate, fights frus­tra­tion and re­fuses to give up. He got an H- 1B visa on his sec­ond at­tempt.

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