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by Derek Loosvelt | April 30, 2020

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On April 1st, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that it had received nearly 275,000 H-1B visa applications—more than three times the H-1B annual limit of 85,000. That means a majority of international students who competed in this year’s H-1B visa lottery won’t be able to secure a visa. Also, on April 22nd, due to the COVID-19 crisis, President Trump signed an executive order that put a temporary ban on green cards for most immigrants, leaving many international students’ future in the U.S. uncertain.

To shed light on these latest developments impacting international students searching for jobs in the U.S., Vault once again spoke with international student career expert Marcelo Barros. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.

Vault: Were you surprised by the high number of H-1B applications this year?

Barros: Not at all. This year, USCIS’s newly implemented electronic registration process made it incredibly easy for U.S. employers (and their attorneys) to apply for H-1Bs. All they had to do was electronically register, provide some basic information about themselves and their intended foreign national beneficiary, and pay the $10 registration fee. So, a few minutes of your time and $10 got you a seat at the table to compete for an H-1B visa. There was such a low barrier of entry this year to apply for an H-1B visa that many of the employers we work with told us, “Why not try if it’s so easy. I want to keep my international student on payroll. Let’s give it a shot.”

Since there were more petitions this year than last year, the odds of getting an H-1B were worse this year, correct?

Yes, the higher the number of H-1B applicants, the lower the chances of securing a visa for those who are competing for one. This year, we’ve calculated the overall chance of being selected in the master’s category (this would apply to MBAs, for example) to be roughly 40 percent. The chance of selection for international students competing for an H-1B with an undergraduate degree only is about 23 percent.

What happens now for students who “won” the lottery?

Selected applicants have already been notified, and now their employers need to gather all the necessary documentation to file an H-1B petition on behalf of the beneficiary. Essentially, this is the same process as last year. Getting selected doesn’t mean you’ll be granted an H-1B visa. There might be RFEs [requests for evidence] and other challenges ahead. But if you check all the boxes and your application is ultimately approved, you’ll be awarded an H-1B visa.

By the way, an additional factor that contributed to the high number of applications has to do with just how hot the U.S. economy was running before coronavirus. There had been intense hiring going on across several sectors, including tech, consulting, and financial services. And since, in many instances, U.S. employers can’t find American candidates to fill certain jobs, they were looking to hire international students.

What happens if U.S. firms can’t find a U.S. citizen or an international student to fill an open position?

The easiest way to explain this is to take a look at what’s already happening in the tech sector. If U.S. firms can’t hire someone with an H-1B and it’s unlikely the job will be filled by an American, companies will send the work overseas where there are eligible employees. And U.S. firms will choose to work with countries with favorable immigration labor laws. Then all sorts of jobs in the U.S. will disappear. It’s not just that software development work will go overseas. There’s a domino effect. Admin roles that support software developers will also move overseas.

That said, the U.S. is still a great place to be. Silicon Valley is still the most amazing place in the world. People still want to be here if they have a choice. No other country in the world can match the dynamism of the U.S. economy. But the problem is, if we give our international students and U.S. firms no choice, they’ll go elsewhere.

On April 22nd, the Trump administration signed an executive order that temporarily suspending immigration. What effect is this having on international students?

First, it’s worth noting that the underlying rationale for the president’s new executive order restrictions is economic, not epidemiological. In any case, obviously this new executive order made our international students extremely nervous. But for now, this order doesn’t seem to impact the efforts of our international students seeking to secure H-1B visas.

Still, the pressure on our international students is likely to intensify. The Trump administration seems determined to protect U.S. jobs and will continue to look for creative ways to execute on the “Buy American Hire American” executive order introduce in 2017. Here’s a scenario: When you suspend the entry of a new immigrants into the U.S., you’re also reducing further immigration because the chains of follow-on migration are disrupted. F-1 international students will become H-1B bound job seekers once they graduate. These hopeful H-1B job seekers, in the eyes of the government, may be stealing jobs from Americans.

So, if you work to eliminate or diminish the number international students from entering the country to attend U.S. universities, over time there’ll be fewer and fewer candidates available for U.S. firms to hire via the H-1B program. In the eyes of the government, the benefit for American workers compounds over time because it essentially eliminates their international competition.

I’m certainly not trying to give U.S. government any ideas here. I know for a fact that these conversations are already happening at the White House, and they’ll intensify between now and the end of the year.

Given all the recent uncertainties and announcements, what’s your company, The International Advantage, recommending international students do now?

Fear and uncertainty have remained a part of our international students lives in the U.S. for a while now. Our work with international students these days has been primarily focused on three pillars:

1. Remaining positive isn’t enough to be successful. Students need to craft job search plans that provides the best chance to beat visa odds, and secure job offers.

2. What you want might not be what you will get. Review expectations and accept reality. International students must carefully assess every aspect of their job search, from selecting the firms they want target to determining the best entry point into these firms.

3. Fully maximize OPT [Optional Practical Training] benefits. Consider post-graduation internships and/or unpaid work related to your field of study in this moment of crisis. Maintain your immigration status and carefully assess the pros and cons of your decisions. Buy yourself time if needed.

Only the strongest international students will survive this crisis. Without job offers, most will have to scramble and consider less than attractive options to maintain their immigration status if they wish to remain in the U.S.

Aside from you and your company, who else, if anyone, is helping international students in this moment of crisis?

The business community. Corporate America has aggressively backed up the international student community by pressuring the U.S. government to do the right thing from an immigration perspective. Their efforts have been instrumental. Business leaders know that international students, in many cases, represent their only chance to fill key roles at their organizations. If this pool of potential candidates goes away, these firms could quickly get into deep trouble. They wouldn’t be able to grow and survive because they’d be unable to hire. At some point, they’ll get eaten up by foreign competitors.

For example, the business community has successfully fought hard to protect the OPT program, which is essentially the main way international student transition from college to the U.S. workforce. OPT is the bridge to an H-1B visa. Protecting and enhancing the OPT program is program is a must, and the business community gets that. 

Can you cite an example of a specific firm that’s been helpful?

Major tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple have spent millions of dollars in the past four years lobbying the U.S. government over issues such as immigration. This kind of effort has impact. For example, The International Advantage has partnered with FWD.us, a nonprofit located in D.C. led by Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, to draw attention to what we feel were irregularities related to H-1B approvals by USCIS. This kind of pressure will continue.

It’s one thing to write a letter and speak out against the Trump administration over an executive order on immigration that might not make sense. It’s another thing to commit millions of dollars towards lobbying efforts to push for sensible legislation. The lives of our international students, in my opinion, would be much worse if it wasn’t for the effective intervention of the private sector.

Anything else international students should know regarding the effects of coronavirus on?

It’s important to remember that coronavirus hasn’t affected all sectors equally. The companies hit the hardest—airlines, hotels, restaurants—haven’t been significant employers of H-1B professionals. Certainly, the pace of hiring has decreased, and the international class of 2020 will take a big hit. But once the dust settles, there’s no question that international students who properly prepare will continue to have a shot at H-1B visas and great jobs in the U.S. The universities we work with are forecasting a decrease in international students enrollment for this fall, but many schools have told us they’re actually looking to increase the job search support they provide their international students.

There are still 85,000 H-1B visas out there, ready to be given out. I always ask international students: What will you do today to get closer to having an H-1B visa stamped on your passport?

Marcelo Barros is the founder of The International Advantage, a firm specializing in providing job search training for international students who seek U.S. jobs. He's the author of The International Advantage Get Hired Video Course, designed to help international students secure jobs in the U.S. Marcelo Barros partners with over 50 U.S. universities to provide extra help to assist their international students with their quest to find U.S. employment via an H-1B visa.

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