The story appears on

Page A12

May 23, 2015

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » News Feature

China students struggle with US work visas

ON a Friday in early spring, a lunchtime crowd fills the food court of Brookfield Place, a lower Manhattan office complex. Yang Guoke, a tall, thin 25-year-old from China, clad in jeans and grey sweater, stands in front of the Blue Ribbon, a sushi bar.

“Shall we have sushi for lunch?” he asks his friends. “It is sort of Asian.”

His cheerful demeanor is in contrast to his mood a year earlier, when he was on the brink losing his grasp of the American dream after failing to get an H-1B visa, the document allowing foreign students to work in the US.

Yang, who is from Chengdu of southwest China’s Sichuan Province and graduated from Columbia University’s engineering school in 2013, is not alone in the struggle of Chinese students seeking to stay in the US to work. Jobs are pretty easy to find. The visa is the stumbling block.

The US is host to more than 350,000 students from China, accounting for nearly one-third of foreign enrollees, according to a quarterly review from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the period from October 2014 to February 2015.

The cap for this year’s H-1B visas, which allow US employers to temporarily hire foreign workers in “specialty occupations,” is 85,000, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. It has received 233,000 applications for the visa. When applications exceed slots available, a lottery is held.

Last May, Yang sat in a cubicle at the headquarters of Barclays Bank as a senior manager told him the bank could not continue his employment because he didn’t get a visa. Without the bank’s continued sponsorship of his efforts to secure a visa, he faced the prospect of being sent back to China.

“I didn’t want to talk to anyone or do anything,” he says of his feelings after receiving the news. “I needed some time to soak up the information.”

It took Yang three weeks to fully recover from the shock and decided not to give up. He undertook a job search for an employer that might sponsor a second attempt at the H-1B visa. He finally was hired by EXL Service, an international consulting firm.

For many American employers, the paperwork involved with the visa isn’t worth the cost or trouble. They have to ensure that the employees have the skills to qualify for a “specialty occupation,” and they aren’t happy about training a new employee only to have him stuck without a visa to continue work.

“There is no way small businesses can afford it,” says Charit Agrawal, an EXL manager who has dealt with many cases like Yang’s. Though EXL is a multinational company with about 20,000 employees in eight countries, it has become very cautious about hiring foreigners living on temporary visas in the US, turning instead to overseas hiring.

Jason Jia, an immigration attorney at Yerman & Associates LLC in New York, points out another employer problem.

“They often can’t find enough good candidates,” he says. “Most employers sponsoring H-1B employees seek candidates with science and engineering backgrounds. There aren’t enough domestic students studying in those fields to keep pace with demand.”

According to newly released data from the US Student and Exchange Visitor Program, the most popular majors among Chinese students in the US are business, management, marketing; computer and information sciences; and liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities.

Ma Ou, from Beijing, now an assistant designer at Ralph Lauren, graduated last year from the Fashion Institute of Technology, one of the best design schools in America. Her talent impressed some of the leading fashion houses, but lack of a work visa dashed any hopes that she could join them. When she was a student, she says the human resources departments of companies “constantly approached me, offering me interviews. But once I mentioned that I needed working visa sponsorship, that ended the approach. It happened to me at least 10 times during the recruitment season.”

However, different from Yang, Ma chose another path. She decided to seek an O-1 visa, which is even harder to get because it’s reserved for individuals with “extraordinary ability or achievement.” Besides all the materials needed to prove she met those requirements, Ma had to get recommendations from industry professionals.

Though mentally prepared for rejection, she still persisted. In the end, she was fortunate. The immigration office officially informed Ma earlier this month that she would be allowed to work as an independent contractor, meaning that she can now work for fashion houses and start her own brand.

Many Chinese students like Yang, who fail to obtain H-1B visas, take another stab at the visa process. Others simply give up and return home; some even don’t bother to try but go home upon graduation.

The number of overseas students who returned to China doubled in the past two years to about 364,800 in 2014, according to the Ministry of Education.

One of them is Mao Sai, 26, who helped found China Chengxin Credit Information in Beijing. After graduating from an operation research program at Columbia in 2013, Mao accepted a job offer from the ratings agency Moody’s Corp and started planning his new life in New York. Convinced he would get an H-1B visa, he even bought an apartment in Manhattan.

When the roof fell on his dreams, Mao says, “I couldn’t believe I couldn’t get a visa that carried endorsements from Columbia and a big name such as Moody’s.”

To stay or to go?

“I was struggling,” says Mao. “At that time, some friends back in China were talking about starting a new company to provide credit ratings consultancy for bank loans. It matched my background, so I decided to go back.”

Mao says it was the right decision.

“Since I returned, I have learned more than I ever did during my entire time at Moody’s,” he says. “The way Chinese banks issue loans is largely different from that of the US. If I had waited five or six years to return, it would have been harder for me to adapt to the working environment here.”

April brought a new round of H-1B applications, and Yang once again decided to try his luck. He completed all the forms, even though it was hard to be optimistic after last year’s bitter experience.

On May 4, US authorities sent him an e-mail saying that the office had completed sending out confirmation notices to chosen applicants. Yang hadn’t received one. He felt morose. Then, on May 12, an e-mail arrived saying his application had been successful.

Yang has decided to write a book about his experience in the hopes that it might give guidance and even hope to other soon-to-graduate foreign students.

“I want to leave some legacy,” Yang says. “I hope people after me will face fewer detours.”



Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend