Challenges for International Students on F-1 Visas

The Trump administration is continuing to put the squeeze on international students with F-1 visas who plan to work in the US after they graduate under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program pushing many to find a different way to attend U.S. universities.

Proclamations from the president this year have raised uncertainties for these students, from one made on April 22 that restricted new immigration to the US for 60 days to another on May 29 that suspended some students from entering the US from China.

Recent restrictions on temporary visa holders are proposed under the premise that American jobs need protecting amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to business disruptions and layoffs across the country. What’s often overlooked is the fact that immigrant student programs create a pipeline to business growth, productivity, innovation, and entrepreneurship—all of which lead to increased employment opportunities for U.S. residents over time. While the unemployment rate in the US has risen dramatically—it hit 13.3% in May—many US employers continue to rely on immigrants for access to specialized skills that are challenging to recruit. The more than 1 million international students in the U.S. (as of the 2018-2019 academic year) contributed $44.7 billion to the economy in 2018.

Under the OPT program, which had 223,000 enrollees as of the 2018-2019 academic year, immigrants can stay in the US for a year after graduation if they work within their field of study and up to three years if they choose a STEM-related job. As it is, just over half of international students go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs. A typical goal of F-1 students is eventually acquiring H-1B status—if they can prevail through the annual lottery process.

Nearly 1.5 million foreign graduates of US colleges and universities participated in the OPT program between 2004 and 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, and participants come from all over. The vast majority are from Asia (75%), with smaller percentages from Europe (8%), Latin America and the Caribbean (8%), and Africa (5%). Of the 16,059 undergraduate students in the U.S. from Brazil, 12.7% went after OPT programs.

The OPT program has been under threat even before the pandemic: In recent years, legislation has been introduced that would eliminate the program. Critics claim it takes jobs away from US residents; however, a study of OPT participants between 2008 and 2016 turned up no evidence that job opportunities are reduced for US workers. In fact, according to a Business Roundtable study, conducted with the University of Maryland’s Interindustry Forecasting Project, a pullback of OPT would lead to job losses, including 255,000 jobs held by native-born workers.

The Challenges of F-1 Visas and a Better Alternative

This year’s scrutiny of temporary work visa programs like F-1/OPT and H-1B by the Labor, Homeland Security, and State departments in the US could lead to further restrictions and add to the uncertainties these program participants feel. Consider that F-1 visa holders face several hurdles to “make it” in the U.S. They have just three months after graduating to find a job and register with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or else they must leave the country. Temporary visas are always vulnerable to changes by regulation or legislation, which could affect students and families striving toward eventually residing and working in the US.

In contrast, students on an EB-5 visa who are granted a green card achieve permanent residency. Post-graduation, their job prospects are wide open, and they do not have to pursue another visa or work permits. After all, green card holders are not restricted to working within their field of study—instead, their toughest choice after graduation is deciding where their career should take them.

Students in the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program are investing in their future, their families, and US businesses. Applicants need to make a one-time investment of $900,000 for a new US business that creates at least 10 jobs for US workers. The capital needs to be “at-risk” but projects are selected to minimize this risk and after the student receives their permanent green card the investment is returned. The total cost is only administration fees and immigration attorney costs which are less than one year’s tuition at many universities.

This USCIS program, which began in 1990, is designed to attract foreign investment, and has benefited companies, US job seekers, and international students.

A Clearer Path Forward

Temporary visas are tough to plan a life around. International students aiming to progress from an F-1 visa to H1-B visa to green card face a challenging route with potential disruptions, particularly in this current environment. In addition to the likelihood of more restrictions from the current administration, there are many steps involved. The EB-5 investment visa provides a clearer, simpler, and quicker path toward permanent residency for immigrant students and their families.

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