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H-1B Working Visa

by Larry Tung, Jun 01, 2004
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After almost a year of job searching in New York, David Chim has given up and is ready to move back to his native Singapore.

With a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Chicago and some experience as an auditor at a big accounting firm in his native Singapore, Chim has not been able to find a job since his graduation last year. In the midst one of the country’s worst recessions, Chim has another dilemma – as a foreigner, he needs a work permit, which is also known as the H-1B visa.

The H-1B visa program, designed to allow American companies to hire foreign professionals on a temporary basis, has long been a popular way for international students to obtain legal right to work in the United States after graduation. Employers have to prove that they cannot find American workers with the same or similar skills, and are required to provide prevailing salaries for the foreign nationals they hire. But less and less employers are willing to do it.

“I was disappointed,” said Chim, joining tens of thousands of foreign graduates from American universities who have to leave or find alternatives after their one-year Optional Practical Training expires. “I was hoping to gain some overseas work experience…I know it doesn’t matter to big firms if they have to sponsor, but for small and medium firms, maybe it is an issue.”

The Optional Practical Training is a one-year program for international students to work in the United States after their graduation during which they must find a H-1B sponsor if they intend to continue working afterwards.

The H-1B, classified as a non-immigrant visa, is approved in an increment of three years with a possible extension for a total of six years. It has to be petitioned by a perspective employer and becomes invalid when the employment is terminated. According to the 1990 Immigration Act, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USBCIS) can issue 65,000 H-1B visas every year. In 2004, the cap was reached in mid February, only four and half months into the fiscal year, which ends in September.

“Although it was harsh on me, I still think it is a fair system,” Chim said. “I can understand that from an American point of view, their citizens come first.”

Jeffrey Lu, who is getting his MBA from Baruch College this month, shares Chim’s pain. He had been to several job fairs and interviews and found that many companies do not sponsor foreigners.

“Many big companies such as Met Life, New York Life, and HSBC, made it clear that they do not sponsor work visas,” Lu said. “I am very disappointed because they rejected me before they even get to know me.”

“The United States prides itself as a nation committed to diversity and multi-culturalism,“ Lu added. “There shouldn’t be so many restrictions.”

Frustrated but undeterred, Lu, a native of Taiwan and an aspiring financial analyst, chose to settle for a job that pays way below his qualifications. He accepted an accountant position at a branch office of a Taiwan-based company in New Jersey that has agreed to sponsor him for an H-1B.

“It’s hard to say no because I don’t know if this kind of opportunity will come again,” Lu said.

Lu is not the only one who put his dream aside for an H-1B. Fernanda Marmo, a teacher at an adult school in Flushing, Queens, said she missed some good opportunities because of her status.

“I would like to teach children in a public school,” said Marmo, who comes from Sao Paolo, Brazil and holds a master’s degree in TESOL from Long Island University. “But all public schools require certification, and I can’t even take the state exams because I don’t have a green card.” According to New York Education Law, one has to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident to qualify for a Permanent or Professional NYS Teaching Certificate, which is required for public school teachers.

Currently with six more months on her OPT, Marmo said her employer is going to sponsor her but she is still worried that USBCIS might reject her application.

“You never know,” Marmo said. “They can always reject you.”

Despite the increasing restrictions and reluctance from employers to sponsor foreign workers, critics of the H-1B program said it’s time to cut back or abolish it, adding that as more companies are taking jobs overseas, known as outsourcing, even the jobs that stay here are not for Americans, particularly in professions such as the IT industry.

“The biggest misconception is that employers must first attempt to fill positions with American workers,” wrote Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, a Web-based advocacy group, in an online article. “This is false. Under current law, an employer can fill dozens of openings H-1B programmers without advertising the position or even considering U.S. programmers for the positions.”

But some see it as a business decision and fair competition.

John Yu, an American citizen who works at the IT department at AIG in New York, said he does feel a little threatened by foreign programmers but it’s all fair game.

“This is a business world,” Yu said. “It’s free competition and employers should be able to hire whoever they think are good workers and at the same time good deals to their business.”

A native of Taipei, Taiwan, Larry Tung is a frequent contributor to the Citizen.

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