Before he was elected president, Donald Trump made it clear: Immigrants wouldn’t find a warm welcome in his United States.
Seven months into office, Trump is following through. His administration has stepped up immigration raids and deportations, firmly stood by its Muslim ban, moved forward with plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and released a new national security proposal that could force international students to get annual permission to stay in the country. The president eagerly threw his support behind a bill unveiled at the White House on Wednesday that aims to slash the number of legal immigrants entering the United States each year in half-from 1 million to 500,000-by 2027.
And back in April, Trump fulfilled one of his campaign pledges by signing the “Buy American, hire American” executive order, demanding a review of the H-1B visa program, which targets high-skill workers with advanced education levels. Even before he took over the White House, Trump singled out the program, which has come under fire from Republicans and Democrats alike who cite concerns over labor and wage abuses.
“We are going to protect our workers, defend our jobs and finally put America first,” Trump said in a speech announcing the order.
His words spurred a wave of confusion. In reality, the H-1B process is a complex and onerous series of steps that thousands of immigrants-many of whom have been studying, working, or otherwise legally living in the United States for years-struggle to navigate. Among them are doctors, teachers, computer scientists, policymakers, and those drawn to advocacy and social justice work, all looking to make a future in the United States. The people applying for H1-B visas are typically hoping to pursue one of the only viable legal pathways to U.S. citizenship currently available to immigrants.
While cracking down on workers looking to stay long-term, Trump is also giving short-term employees a boost. During July’s “Made in America” week, he increased the allotment of H-2B visas-which are issued to immigrants for low-wage temporary jobs-by 45 percent, while adding more temporary foreign workers to his Mar-A-Lago staff.
Trump doesn’t seem to know much about the visa program he has decided to target. Silicon Valley workers and international students hoping to work in nonprofit organizations are not taking the coal and factory jobs the president wants to restore. If anything, they fulfill crucial roles in fields where they are all too often desperately needed.
And if they no longer have a viable path forward in the United States, they’ll take their talents elsewhere.
Navigating a complicated, chaotic process
The H-1B visa is best known for its association with the tech industry. Major U.S. tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Uber heavily rely on high-skill visas to employ programmers, engineers, and developer positions. But the visa’s use is much broader than that.
“H-1B workers fill many types of needs, they’re not just tech,” said Leslie Dellon, a business immigration attorney for the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C. Those workers include teachers, researchers, and nonprofit workers, Dellon explained. They also include doctors, who work as part of the Conrad 30 waiver program-an effort that aims to counter the shortage of qualified doctors in medically underserved areas.
“It’s not a zero-sum game where you have an H-1B worker in a position and that means an American worker is out of a job.”
High-skill work visas are the administration’s primary target for reform, while low-skill visas, which are given for temporary jobs that often pay minimum wage and don’t come with benefits, are being expanded under Trump. In July, the Department of Homeland Security announced a one-time increase to the number of H-2B visas given each year for seasonal work that includes shucking oysters and peeling shrimp for the seafood industry.
But while H-1Bs have become a major target for pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle, it’s misleading to characterize the visas as a source of unemployment for U.S. citizens, or as an easy opportunity for immigrants to defraud the system.
“A lot of times people are conflating the movement of jobs overseas with jobs filled by H-1B workers and they have nothing to do with one another,” Dellon said. “It’s not a zero-sum game where you have an H-1B worker in a position and that means an American worker is out of a job.”
Sensational H-1B cases that make the news are usually wage-related, with employers, largely contract or staffing agencies, subject to lawsuits for underpaying foreign workers for outsourced work. But H-1B employers must attest to labor employment conditions for each application, which acknowledges that they are paying an appropriate wage.
There also isn’t a lot of evidence that applicants are abusing the visas, which are incredibly hard to get. The first, and often hardest, hurdle for applicants to surmount is finding a job that will offer them sponsorship, often when they’re right out of school with little or no work experience. But even with a job offer, an H-1B visa isn’t guaranteed and applicants have to rely on a lottery system.
H-1Bs make up a sliver of the American immigration system-only 65,000 H-1B visas are awarded each year compared to an estimated 1 million total visas. Another 20,000 are given to qualified foreigners who obtained graduate degrees from U.S. colleges. Every year, the number of applicants far outnumbers available slots, despite recent dips: there were about 200,000 applicants in 2017-down 15 percent from last year and a record low compared to the last five years. Still, the slots filled up in just five days.
Some H-1B applicants are spared the lottery. That includes doctors in the Conrad 30 Waiver program and those sponsored by employers exempt from the lottery cap, including universities, nonprofits, and research and government organizations. These lottery cap-exempt applications are typically approved on a rolling basis-one that, until recently, could be sped up with premium processing, allowing for 15-day turnaround.
But there’s been a serious backlog since U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a six-month suspension of premium processing in March, leaving many applicants in legal purgatory. In June, USCIS lifted the premium processing suspension for doctors in the Conrad 30 waiver program, but all other H-1B applicants remain suspended in the backlog.
Divyanshi Wadhwa, a 24-year-old native of Delhi, India, knows all about the problems caused by backlogs. She was offered a sponsored position with a research institution, exempt from the H-1B lottery. Hoping for premium processing, Wadhwa’s organization quickly submitted her paperwork along with that of a Pakistani co-worker before the suspension in April. Wadhwa’s coworker was approved, but Wadhwa was asked for more information.
“They challenged that my organization was a nonprofit research org, and that my position is a speciality occupation,” Wadhwa recounted in May, adding that the government had asked for evidence that a bachelor’s degree was indeed required for her position. When Wadhwa expressed confusion, her employers told her such situations aren’t uncommon when the government is overwhelmed with H-1B applications.
With no other option, Wadhwa was forced to re-submit her paperwork and wait. “While I’m going through this process, I can’t travel, I have limited mobility,” she said at the time. “There have been repercussions.”
Racing to find a job in time
For all of the visa’s complicated steps, applicants report facing another issue: No one seems to know anything about how H-1B sponsorship works in practice.
“I don’t think Americans understand the process at all,” said Akriti Rai, 25, who is from Mumbai, India. Rai recently graduated from a master’s program at Boston University, the second master’s program she has completed. “They know there’s some sort of work authorization, but that’s it. They don’t know how that’s going to affect my life. I’ve never met anyone who’s like ‘yeah, I understand this whole H-1B thing.’”
When Wadhwa applied for jobs, the lack of knowledge surrounding H-1Bs quickly became a problem. Despite seeking out jobs in international development-an area where, she noted, organizations should be eager to hire people from other countries-few employers seemed to understand the steps required to bring on foreign workers.
“I’ve never met anyone who’s like ‘yeah, I understand this whole H-1B thing.’”
“I think in general there’s a lack of information about what it means for an organization to hire someone on an H-1B,” she said. “Even in HR [departments] they didn’t seem to understand these things.”
Employers are typically unaware of an important caveat in the visa application process: Time is limited.
Foreign students are permitted to work on a student visa for a year. Optional Practical Training, or OPT, offers students the chance to gain work experience and apply the skills they’ve learned while in school. For people like Rai, OPT offers a bit more time. In 2008, USCIS implemented a 17-month OPT extension for those with STEM degrees, which was later replaced with a 24-month extension-which means Rai and her peers now have a cumulative 36 months after graduation before they need an employer’s sponsorship, as opposed to the 12 months most H-1B seekers get.
But Rai’s extra time will only kick in if a job materializes. And that’s a challenge in and of itself.
Some employers can’t afford-or don’t want-to hire employees on H-1B visas. Employers with more than 50 employees must pay a $4,000 petition fee for each H-1B job holder, according to USCIS. And that’s on top of any other money associated with hiring these employees, such as government fees, costs associated with relocation and travel, immigration lawyer retention fees, and the employee’s salary and benefits. Those costs are often justified by a need to fill jobs that require knowledge and skills that Americans typically don’t have, such as in the STEM fields and positions that require fluency in multiple languages.
U.S. colleges and universities have consistently awarded more STEM and business degrees to international students compared to American students in recent years. But for some employers, sponsorship is too much of a hassle.
“A lot of the jobs I’ve been applying to have an automatic denial [if you need sponsorship],” Rai said. “Just having that on an application form hinders me. I only have a few months.”
Applicants themselves also pay a $460 application fee, according to USCIS data, and spend countless hours applying to jobs and filling out forms, burdens that come coupled with the mental and emotional toll of uncertainty.
“I’ve applied everywhere,” said Amal Asimova, 27, who earned her master’s degree in August of 2016. “After I reached 250 applications, I stopped counting.”
“I’ve applied everywhere. After I reached 250 applications, I stopped counting.”
Fluent in Uzbek, Russian, and English, Asimova-a native of Uzbekistan-has been seeking positions with a Eurasia focus. She initially targeted nonprofits and research organizations, appealing because their lottery cap-exempt status would allow her to skip the lottery process. Called in for interviews multiple times, she watched the same scenario play out.
“When the point comes when they ask if I need sponsorship…that’s when it doesn’t go through,” she said. “[It’s] always the factor.”
Struggling to start new businesses
Not every immigrant is looking for a job-some are trying to create them. Pierre Jean Cobut, who is 34, emigrated from Belgium and now runs a health care IT company called Spry Health in Palo Alto, California. But that wouldn’t be the case if he hadn’t gotten picked in the the H-1B lottery three years ago.
Cobut came to the U.S. to get an MBA from Stanford University in 2012. Two years later, he and fellow classmate Elad Ferber set out to secure funding for their new business. But their immigration status got in the way and the pair almost abandoned the U.S. for a more immigrant-friendly Canada.
“We were committed to building our company together,” Cobut said. “And if we were unable to secure immigration status, it was really clear that our partnership and the company were going to come first and we would move to Canada, that seemed to be the most logical next step.”
Immigrant entrepreneurs have a particularly tough time getting visas because the system mandates there be an existing employee-employer relationship.
“The H-1B doesn’t really lend itself to entrepreneurs because it has certain requirements,” said Dellon, of the American Immigration Council. “You must have an employer-employee relationship and so there has to be a structure where that entrepreneur is actually reporting to a board or something else that has the ability to remove the person. And that is not ideal for a lot of entrepreneurs.”
Eventually, Cobut, who lives in Menlo Park, and his partner both applied for H-1Bs through the lottery system. Cobut got approved-but Ferber didn’t.
“It was the same as neither of us getting it,” he said.
Ferber ultimately applied for an O-1 visa, intended for immigrants who possess exceptional abilities and often referred to as the “celebrity visa.” His application was approved, and the pair were able to launch Spry Health-providing more jobs to other people looking to launch their careers in the United States.
Cobut said about half of his employees are immigrants. But now, thanks to the H-1B process, he’s having a problem retaining talent. Two staff members have already gone through the lottery without success.
Cobut said he is particularly worried about losing one employee, an American-educated French citizen with a PhD in biophysics, who is trying to get O-1 status before time runs out on his current State Department visa that allows foreigners to work or study through exchange programs.
“There’s nothing we can do and we’ll lose him. He’ll have to go back to France, which he doesn’t want to do” after living in the United States for 10 years on one-year visas, Cobut said. While Cobut described his employee as “an amazing individual from every perspective,” Cobut said he currently lives life in limbo on one-year visas, not feeling settled enough to buy furniture, or even get married-because he doesn’t know when he might be sent back.
“Living with that uncertainty is pretty terrible. It’s hard emotionally, psychologically,” Cobut said.
The U.S. economy pays the price
Emotional and psychological stress are inevitable byproducts of a convoluted legal immigration system, but they aren’t its only casualties. For many, the H-1B process corrodes the idea of the American dream sold abroad.
Even with the H-1B visa, there isn’t a clear path to residency or citizenship-a bleak reality that can discourage others from coming to the United States. According to a March report from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officer, about 40 percent of the nearly 300 institutions sampled saw drops in international student enrollment applications for the fall semester. Declines disproportionately came from students residing in the Middle East and other parts of Asia. But for some countries, enrollment began to dip before Trump’s election, according to 2016 student visa data. Saudi student enrollment dropped 20 percent by November 2016, Chinese graduate school applications fell by 32 percent, and Indian applications sank 41 percent. These sudden drops could also explain the decline in H-1B applicants this year.
Low application numbers don’t surprise Wadhwa, from New Dehli, at all.
“I’ve heard this from a few Indians. Honestly, I kind of understand,” she said. “A lot of them have said to me that they’re unsure of coming in because of Trump.”
The Trump administration has ushered in a hostile environment for both documented and undocumented immigrants. Hate crimes, xenophobia, and racism haunt many of the people trying to stay in the country. South Asians like Wadhwa have disproportionately experienced discrimination beyond the visa crackdown. As ThinkProgress reported in April, violence against the community has risen, largely in correlation with Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. Coupled with Trump’s Muslim ban, which targets citizens from Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Libya, and Syria (and, at one point, Iraq), that trend is prompting many would-be U.S. workers and students to decide they might be more welcome elsewhere.
“The law does not protect me. I’m not a citizen.”
Where the United States is set to lose, others will gain. The Canadian government has already launched a new Global Skills Strategy visa program, making it easier for companies to hire foreign workers in the tech and business sectors. Such perks are among the reasons students are increasingly looking to Canada and Europe, where prospects seem brighter. Jobs aren’t the only reason for that trend-those who continue to pin their hopes on the United States are also struggling with an increasingly hostile and violent environment for immigrants of all backgrounds.
“For me, I’m more afraid of attacks that are racially-driven than being sponsored,” Rai said. “I supposedly live in a New England liberal bubble….but there are so many cases of people being racist or extremely ignorant and disgusting. Given that Boston does have a racism problem…I’m scared of going out at night.”
After a beat, she added, “The law does not protect me. I’m not a citizen.”
There’s no question the current political climate has made finding a job harder for international workers. Asimova, of Uzbekistan, said that in some interviews with potential employers, hiring managers “were very sincere” about wanting to make sponsorship work-but not with Trump’s current rhetoric on H-1Bs. She said several have told her “with the current administration, they don’t want to take the risk” on H-1B sponsorship.
Employers not taking the risk could have tangible effects on the U.S. economy. Immigrants only make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, but they are far more likely to start new businesses than American-born counterparts. More than half of the nation’s billion-dollar companies and more than 25 percent of small businesses were started by immigrants. Forty percent of U.S. Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, according to a 2011 report from the New American Economy (NAE). Additionally, there were 180,000 refugee entrepreneurs in the United States (13 percent of the refugee population) in 2015, based on a recent report from the New American Economy. Only 9 percent of Americans own businesses.
But with a complicated process growing harder by the day, those same businesses are facing obstacles that hurt their ability to do their work and attract top talent.
“That’s a real concern for us because we have a group of people here who are exceptionally talented,” Cobut said. “Most of our employees have PhDs in biophysics, mathematics, biomedical engineering, electrical engineering. Really, really smart people. And it’s hard to keep them, basically because of the immigration law.”
With the Trump administration cracking down and no solution in sight, some are looking beyond H-1Bs. As time dwindles, Asimova and her friends are shifting their strategies, targeting international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which offer G-4 diplomatic visas. While the option isn’t ideal for many applicants, it’s become increasingly clear that it’s the only one they have if they hope to remain in the United States.
“We hustle all day long to create these companies, to create jobs, we pay taxes, we are good productive citizens and yet it always feels like we’re not really wanted.”
Asimova will need an offer soon, or she will have to return to the United Arab Emirates, where she holds residency. In the meantime, she’s holding out for an offer-any offer. “When you’re hopeless, you accept what comes your way,” she said, before adding, “I did want to stay here.”
Along with thousands of other immigrants, Asimova would like to build a life in the United States. But those dreams look increasingly unlikely.
“We hustle all day long to create these companies, to create jobs, we pay taxes, we are good productive citizens and yet it always feels like we’re not really wanted,” Cobut said. “It’s a pretty shitty feeling.”