China students struggle with US work visas
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.