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International students have found it increasingly difficult to obtain an H-1B visa, which is needed to remain in the United States to work. | DP File Photo

Serra Kazanc came to study at Penn in 2009, earned an internship at Jefferies — a global financial firm — the summer after her junior year and was offered full time employment at the company after graduating from Wharton in 2013. That year, Kazanc, who concentrated in finance and real estate, started working at Jefferies in New York City. She was happy with her job and so was her employer. The Wharton graduate was leasing an apartment and was one of the many Penn students that migrate to New York City upon graduation.

But in May 2014, the United States government notified Kazanc that she no longer had permission to work in the country and forced her to move out of the United States, the place she had come to call home for the past five years.

Kazanc is originally from Turkey and, like most international students that come to Penn, she had to deal with the possibility of being deported from the United States if she didn’t obtain an H-1B visa after 12 months of working in the country.

The problem with obtaining H-1B visas

H-1B is a non-immigrant visa that allows employers to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations for up to six years.

Obtaining an H-1B visa, which is allocated through a lottery system, has become increasingly hard in the past few years. The Department of Homeland Security currently caps the amount of H-1B visas granted at 65,000 per fiscal year, with an additional 20,000 reserved for applicants with advanced degrees. Last year, DHS received an overwhelming 233,000 H-1B petitions in as little as a week; only a little over one-third of petitioners received one of the sought-after visas.

“I had been living in the U.S. for five years and I think I deserved the right to stay,” Kazanc said, who moved to London to work at her company’s international branch there. “The cap was about 60,000 people and the applications [numbered] 180,000 [in my] year. It is totally not based on merit and totally based on luck, which is not the right way to do things.”

Before even thinking about H-1B visas, most international Penn students go through the process of obtaining an F1 visa, an easily obtainable non-immigrant visa for those wishing to study in the United States. To be able to work during the summers and after graduation, students have the option of obtaining an Optional Practical Training (OPT) permit, which confers a 12-month work allowance. Those who wish to continue working in the United States after using the 12 months of work permitted by OPT have to apply for an H-1B visa.

While the U.S.’s current policy makes it more accessible for foreigners to obtain an F1 visa to study in the United States, the current cap level and competition for H-1B visas makes it difficult for graduates to stay and work in the country after graduation.

Daniel Bäume, a 2013 College graduate from Germany, also went through an ordeal similar to Kazanc’s. After graduating from Penn, Bäume went on to work for AIG in New York City and expected to do so for a couple of years. His luck changed when he realized that H-1B visas were becoming extremely competitive.

“I saw myself staying [in the U.S.] for a couple of years, but then six months into my job I realized ‘Oh sh*t, there is actually this H-1B thing’, which hadn’t been causing issues to people for years,” Bäume said. “Suddenly, starting in 2013, a lot of people started getting rejected through the lottery.”

Bäume wasn’t accepted for an H-1B visa, but considers himself lucky because his company was able to relocate him to their London offices. Unlike Kazanc’s company, Bäume’s employer paid for all his relocation costs.

“In my experience I was quite fortunate because my company was willing to just transfer me to London, but a lot of people got screwed over,” Bäume said. “In my group of [Penn] friends, it was six people who were in the same situation and we all moved to London. I got lucky, other people completely got screwed.

The competitiveness of the H-1B visa process — in which a company applies on behalf of the employee — affects a significant amount of Penn students that wish to work in the United States after graduation. According to Penn Admissions' website, 12 percent of undergraduate students currently enrolled in the university are from abroad. In 2014, three-fourths of graduating international seniors across all schools reported that they would stay to work in the United States, according to Career Services. Penn, however, does not keep track of how many of their graduates eventually apply for H-1B visas, as the process is conducted after graduation and by the graduate’s employer.

In fact, H-1B visas have become so difficult to obtain that many companies that recruit on Penn’s campus refrain from hiring students that may potentially need a sponsor to apply for an H-1B visa in the future.

“The biggest issue I hear from employers is that there is still no guarantee, even if they do the paperwork, because there is typically a lot more applications for visas than there are available,” Barbara Hewitt, Wharton senior associate director at Career Services, said. She specified that, in order to guide students, the Career Services website provides a list of companies who have hired international students in the past.

“Different industries tend to be much more open to sponsoring,” Hewitt said. “Obviously technology [companies], but also large financial firms have legal staffs that know how to [apply for H-1B visas]. Consulting firms will often do it. Government obviously is not an option and smaller firms sometimes don’t know how to do it.”

Increased competitiveness for H-1B visas wasn’t always the norm. Both Hewitt and Jeremy Spohr, an advisor at Penn’s International Student and Scholar Services, noted that the state of the economy significantly affects the amount of companies applying for H-1B visas. During the most recent economic recession, employers didn’t demand as many H-1B visas.

“In 2009-2011 the lottery wouldn’t run out for months because companies weren’t hiring,” Spohr said.

Historical figures from DHS reports show that, while from 2014-16 H-1B visas hit the 65,000 cap within five to seven days after the filing period opened, it took more than six months for H-1B visas to reach the same cap from 2010 to 2012.

“One of the worse things about the H-1B system is that the people who do not get the visa are also the people who find out last,” said Bäume, who was notified by the United States government two weeks before his OPT permit was set to expire. “You'll only find out a couple of weeks before you actually leave the U.S, if you don’t get it.”

Fixing the nationwide problem

Increasing the yearly cap on the amount of H-1B visas the U.S. grants has fallen at an impasse in Congress, where Republicans and Democrats alike have been unable to pass any serious immigration reform.

The closest the issue with H-1B visas came to be addressed was in 2013 when a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill emerged in the Senate. One of the provisions of the bill would have substantially increased the annual cap on H-1B visas from 85,000 to 205,000.

The bill — which proposed strengthened border security and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — passed the Senate, but died in the House of Representatives.

One of the issues with passing any sort of immigration reform through Congress is the parties’ differing views on how reform should take place.

“Republicans in Congress are generally opposed to comprehensive immigration reform. They’re much more willing to do piece by piece immigration reform,” Associate Vice President for Federal Affairs of Penn’s Government and Community Affairs William G. Andresen said.

“They’ll be more sympathetic to solving the H-1B problem or to passing legislation to secure the border. Democrats on the other hand believe that if you let Congress just pass the easy stuff then they won’t do the hard stuff," he added. "The Democrats’ position is that they support comprehensive immigration reform as the best way to deal with all of these issues."

Andresen specified that Congress’s hyper-polarization and general opposition from organized labor groups have made any progress on adjusting H-1B visas virtually impossible. He reiterated Penn’s support for comprehensive immigration reform, but conceded that the University would potentially back an individual bill that solely addressed H-1B visas.

One such bill was introduced on Jan. 13, 2015 by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and three others. The bill — also called the I-Squared Act — would increase the number of high-skilled visas available each year to as many as 195,000 from the current cap of 65,000 and otherwise allow for more legal immigration to the United States,  according to a Wall Street Journal article published on Jan. 13. The bill has barely seen progress.

“[The bill] would raise the quota for H1B visas and address a lot of these issues, but it is not going anywhere,” Andresen said. “The problem is that Republicans in Congress have essentially said that they’re not going to move any immigration legislation because they disagree strongly with the executive actions that President Obama took on DACA and some of the other positions he has taken.”

However, a small triumph came on March 11. The U.S. government published a rule saying that international students earning degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in the U.S. will now be eligible to stay for three years of on-the-job training. This is seven months longer than the period under the 2008 rule it replaces for the STEM OPT program, according to a March 9 New York Times article.

Not only does it mean that STEM students will have more years of permitted work in the United States, but more years to apply and succeed at obtaining an H-1B visa.

“I think its a great opportunity for students in the STEM fields,” Spohr said. “This is a new thing, it just came out last week… They will roll out more details in May.”

Beating the system

The low chances of obtaining an H-1B visa and Congress’s inability to act has incited at least one Penn student to approach the system ingeniously. An international 2015 Wharton graduate — who asked not to be named — managed to apply and obtain an H-1B visa while she was still a senior at Penn.

As a senior, her future employer — an international financial firm in New York City — asked her to obtain a letter from Wharton’s undergraduate advising office certifying that she was on track to obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Her employer used this letter as a substitute for an official bachelors degree in her H-1B application. A few months later, the Wharton graduate was notified that she had obtained an H-1B visa.

Generally, only students who have graduated can apply for these visas. 

Both ISSS and Career Services noted that they were unfamiliar with this approach as it largely depends on your school’s decision to write such a letter and your future employer’s willingness to accept it as a substitute to a degree.

“The minimum requirement for an H-1B visa is that you need to have a bachelors degree,” Spohr said. “There have been some cases when students want to ask Wharton, SEAS or the College for a letter that confirms that they’ll have a bachelors degree. Usually they say no.”

Adjusting to a new life

While much of the backlash against increasing the cap for H-1B visas comes from detractors who state that foreigners are taking American jobs, Kazanc disagreed. She said the United States has a serious white-collar gap and that she helped to fill in that gap when working in New York.

“I didn’t think I was stealing an American’s job. When you apply for a company they accept you based on merit,” she said. “Americans had as much of an opportunity as I did. My employer thought I was more competitive than an American [applicant]. That is why they chose me.”

She added, “I don’t feel guilty about it."

While both Kazanc and Bäume have adjusted to their news lives in London, they both criticized the U.S.’s apparently contradictory policy when it comes to attracting foreign students for higher education while rejecting their ability to work afterwards.

“It was disappointing at the time to have to leave the U.S. so quickly after graduation, but now I’m actually very happy about London,” Bäume said. “At the time I was super upset. You feel completely rejected even though you’ve been paying taxes, making friends. In general, you feel like you have a lot to contribute to the U.S. and then they kick you out.”

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