‘I know this is a bit far away, but …” My heart sank as I saw the all-too-familiar question coming, “What’s your plan after graduation, going back to China or staying in America?” To leave or to stay, this classical question for newcomers never fails to engender my American peers’ curiosity. But for my fellow international students, it is all too real of an important life decision that we must ultimately make for ourselves.
Well, not exactly. For those who choose to remain in the country, a lottery system has the final say over their fate — an annual distribution of the 65,000 H1B visas that allow bachelor-degree-holding foreigners to work temporarily in the United States. In the midst of heated debates on Obama’s immigration executive and undocumented aliens, I am surprised by how little people care about or even know of the H1B quota, a policy that randomly bars high-skilled foreign workers out of America’s labor market and brutally crushes the American Dream of those international students already offered a job.
Planning for the future, I find myself utterly frustrated by the complex process that leads to a legal American job. During my entire stay in America, I can only intern under an OPT visa for a maximum of 12 months and in major-related areas. Not intending to major in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math, I am also bidding goodbye to a luxurious 17-month Optional Practical Training extension for my idealism.
Additionally, underneath the H1B visa, I am required to find an employer who is willing to testify my irreplaceability by an American, to hand in my visa application on the exact date of April 1 and to take the risk that I might be suddenly sent home and unable to work out of bad luck.
My concerns are no freshman paranoia. Sharing an apartment with a Chinese graduate student at Johns Hopkins this winter break, I witnessed her struggles finding a job four months after graduation: “Most companies don’t sponsor visas,” she said, “As soon as their interviewers know about your status in a telephone interview, they simply cut the conversation.”
The rejection comes even more painfully when one already holds a hard-won job offer. This year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services closed off H1B visa application after receiving 172,500 qualified petitions, including those from advanced degree holders, but only accepted the total cap number of 85,000 through a computer-generated random selection process. For those rejected, the bitter choice is between obtaining other visas through education or marriage and flying home for another round of job hunt.
It is true that international students should know what they are signing up for when they choose to study abroad. And of course, the United States should protect its own citizens, instead of foreigners, from unemployment as its top priority. But what I wish to question here is the necessity of a H1B visa cap to protect American workers and the inconsistency of a quota system with America’s self-definition as a country of immigrants.
The justification for a H1B visa cap can be summarized in one sentence: “One more job for a foreigner is one less job for an American.” Sounds reasonable, but what if there simply aren’t enough Americans who meet a job requirement? The Labor Condition Application answers this question. A prerequisite for any H1B visa application, it ensures a wage higher than the “prevailing wage” for foreign workers and bans them from replacing any equally capable U.S. citizens. In this sense, those 87,500 high-skilled job vacancies created by the visa cap mean nothing but a heavy financial loss for America’s private sector.
Furthermore, the existence of a quota reminds me of the discriminatory immigration quota based on national origins in 1920, except that the international students nowadays seek not a passport but simply a job that contributes to America’s economy and hones their skills. When John F. Kennedy spoke on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that abolished quotas for Italian immigrants, he stated his conviction, “that all people can make equally good citizens, and that what this country needs and wants are those who wish to come here to build their families here and contribute to the life of our country.” And that inclusiveness for talents without discrimination constitutes America’s central appeal for me.
Indeed, I should feel lucky with just the mere possibility of a choice. But I would hate to think that I am welcomed into a prestigious American university as a symbol for campus diversity or as a financial source, that I am no longer desirable as soon as I wish to receive any monetary payments for a skilled employment college leads to and that my own important life decision to “leave or stay” will jokingly end up being settled by a lottery.
Xinlan Hu is a freshman in the College.