What words turn you off when you’re scrolling through job postings? Long hours? No pay? For one-fifth of the Berkeley student population, it is “we do not sponsor H-1B visas.”
Entering Cal two and a half years ago from Hong Kong as a jetlagged but excited freshman, I shelved the thought of obtaining work visas as a to-do item as distant as my Math 1A final (which came sooner than you can say “differentiate”). Now among the thousands of still jetlagged students returning to our beautiful campus and preparing for recruiting season, I took a good, hard look at my visa menu and in return found a list of statistics that not only characterized work prospects for Cal’s international community but also highlighted a far more intricate issue of immigration and labor.
As employers all over the country begin interviewing job applicants at Cal, students on F-1 study visas — i.e., authorization for me to study in the United States — have three main options: (1) Get a job for a maximum of 12 months through the Optional Practical Training program, aiming to earn a company-sponsored H-1B visa, which permits eventual green card application; (2) go to grad school and return to step 1; or (3) go home. There’s also (4) get married, but on that, you are better off consulting your immigration lawyer. The United States currently caps the number of H-1B visas — permits that allow U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers — at 65,000 a year, with 20,000 exempt for advanced STEM degrees. In 2010, only 34.6 percent of all H-1B visas approved went to students, 75 percent of whom had graduate degrees. In other words, only 8 percent of H-1Bs are issued to F-1 undergraduate job seekers.
At this point, I looked up at my roommate and repeated the statistic out loud to reaffirm its reality. From the perspective of an early 20-something shooting off applications on Callisto and aspiring to put my Cal education to good use, I initially treated these numbers as a personal issue. But after examining the facts of the H-1B and drawing multiple insights from Brookings, fellow opinion pieces and UC Berkeley professor AnnaLee Saxenian, I realized I was dealing with a far more complex debate on immigration reform, America’s foreign students and building the next knowledge economy.
It is vital to examine why these immigration laws have been established. Historically, U.S. immigration patterns have fluctuated under changing economic and political pressures. Immigration quotas in the 1920s sought to reduce the number of low-skilled immigrants flooding the labor market, and more recent 21st-century immigration policies were a response to an influx of undocumented immigrants. As the global hub of higher education and innovation, the United States attracts one-fifth of all students studying abroad. Driving that growth, 64 percent of the incoming degree seekers are enrolled in STEM fields.
But the disagreement is to what extent these H-1B cohorts will contribute to the U.S. knowledge economy. To protect U.S. jobs, the U.S. Department of Labor mandates that wages of the nonimmigrant workers meet or exceed that of the H-1B visa-holder. This law has resulted in layoffs and a demographic shift in tech firms in favor of less expensive H-1B labor. Immigrants have founded 40 percent of companies in the tech sector by certain measures, according to Google executive Laszlo Bock. But most of today’s H-1B workers don’t stick around to found the next Yahoo or eBay. In fact, half of them work for offshore outsourcing firms and, with less than 3 percent applying for permanent residency, most return home carrying forth their new skills. Meanwhile, big tech companies continue to lobby for raising the visa quota, despite the fact that, as UC Davis professor Norman Matloff describes it, data challenge the H1-B’s intended role of bridging the STEM gap, questioning whether it is actually successful at attracting legitimately highly skilled foreign workers and putting them in research and development positions in which their skills can be critically leveraged. It is there no wonder opponents to the I-Squared Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, which proposes upping the quota to 115,000, cite the H-1B program as a corporate subsidy or “outsourcing visa.”
In the wake of this multi-interest debate, policymakers should close loopholes in the H-1B program that encourage abuse to offer fairer employment opportunities. I wish every Cal Bear and fellow student from any university (except maybe Stanfurd) the best shot in postgraduate opportunities after working so hard to earn his or her degree(s). One’s choice of job and location is often a very personal decision. Looking forward, I sincerely hope that the United States will achieve a socioeconomic balance that not only promotes the best individual interests of both domestic and foreign students but also fosters greater social good in the spirit of public education via talent development and cooperation across the globe.