SCAD really is a world campus, representing a whopping 119 countries–61 percent of the world. Many of these students are here on an F-1 visa; according to SCAD’s 2018-19 factbook, 21.63 percent of full-time undergraduates and 58.25 percent of full-time graduates are “nonresident aliens,” an administrative label for F-1 visa holders. With so many students having to go through the lengthy and often confusing application process, it is worth looking into the ever-changing visa system and the struggle students face long after coming to the United States.

“I was nervous beyond measure,” Kevin Vaswani said, referring to his experience acquiring a visa at the U.S. embassy in Indonesia. Kevin has held an F-1 visa for three years, and like many other international students, has struggled with the application process and its limitations. Some students, like Cherry Wong, a visa holder for 4 years, go through agencies to simplify the application process. Cherry added that she could not “imagine trying to do everything herself” and “probably wouldn’t want to study in the U.S.” if she did.

In the last couple of years, the U.S. has seen a sharp decline in non-immigrant student visas. According to statistics from the Department of State, F-1 visa applications are down 7.8% since 2018, and 43.6% since the highest point in 2015. Since the 2016 election, the Trump administration’s stance on immigration has become increasingly rigid, driving international students to study in higher numbers in the United Kingdom and Australia.

“Foreign Influence” Shaping Study Abroad

“Almost every student that comes into this country is a spy.”

President Trump in 2018 referring to Chinese students studying in U.S. academic institutions during a dinner meeting

Tensions between the U.S. and China have escalated since 2018, putting the 369,364 Chinese, 7,085 Hong Kong, and 545 Macau students in an unexpected spotlight. Of the visa-holding students at SCAD, the largest demographic is from China. American universities, including SCAD, are more Chinese-money-dependent, with Chinese enrollment in US colleges tripling over the last decade. Political clashes between the two global superpowers threaten American university’s cozy, academic relationship with China.

President Trump believes this uptick in Chinese enrollment has another angle; during a dinner meeting with CEOs and senior White House Staff, referring to Chinese students, President Trump said “almost every student that comes into this country is a spy.” President Trump, hoping to protect American intellectual property, proposed restricting visas for Chinese students studying in U.S. academic institutions. “How China’s Economic Aggression Threatens the Technologies and Intellectual Property of the United States and the World,” a report released by the White House, accuses China of conducting commercial espionage against U.S. companies: “[China is conducting] human infiltration to systematically penetrate the information systems of U.S. companies to steal their intellectual property.” This has fueled the churning Chinese red-scare, encouraging Congress to ban Chinese-made surveillance cameras in government buildings effective since August 13, 2019.

This year, the Department of Defense will cease funding to universities with Confucius Institutes, a program that focuses on engaging American students in Chinese language, culture, and contemporary China. Schools such as the University of Rhode Island and San Francisco State have already shut down their programs. The push came in early 2018; lawmakers wanted to have Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Influence Transparency Act. Between March 2018 and 2019 came a 3% decrease in Chinese, Hong Kong, and Macau students studying in the U.S.

The growing U.S. fear around Chinese foreign influence has international students worried that the Trump administration would make the already lengthy visa process more restrictive for everyone. “This colossal mess that the U.S. has brought into the political world has definitely deterred young minds from venturing into a country filled with opportunities,” said Vaswani. “I had to see past it.”

From those students interviewed, three common answers cited fear in the new political state of the U.S., the increased financial burden of studying abroad, and complications surrounding jobs and internships.

The Struggle

By itself, an F-1 visa does not allow a student to get work off-campus, part-time or full-time. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a student must complete one academic year, and must “explain your economic hardship situation and receive approval to work from your Designated School Official (DSO).” If the DSO is aware of a student working­ without permission, that student must leave the U.S. effective immediately and never return. For students barely getting by financially, this is a huge concern.

“From the view of the US, they’re doing the students a favor by letting them take the spot that one of their locals could have instead. So, if we want to benefit from education abroad, we better be ready to pay for it.”

Anonymous SCAD graduate

A common choice for students is to apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) during or after college. An OPT allows students to apply for internships in the field they are majoring in. However, this still has issues, as a SCAD alumnus who wishes to remain anonymous found out. They landed an internship at NBC Universal, which went smoothly until NBC told them that because of their work permit, they cannot confirm payment until after the shoot. The alumnus asked a SCAD International Students & Scholars Office (ISSO) counselor about their rights in this situation; the counselor told them that even if they get paid, they will have problems in future U.S. employment applications as they “see [their] track record for bending the rules a bit like that.” The SCAD alumnus provided a direct quote from the ISSO counselor: “It’s not technically an issue since most of the job was them purchasing the rights to your artwork, but your future employment might be denied for a small slip up like this ‘under the current administration.’”

How does a student attempt to pay for an increasingly expensive education with limited access to jobs? The anonymous student added that “from the view of the US, they’re doing the students a favor by letting them take the spot that one of their locals could have instead. So, if we want to benefit from education abroad, we better be ready to pay for it.”

Meshal Almazyad, a SCAD student from Saudi Arabia, reiterated the complexity of the OPT: “[At] one of these meetings with the ISSO with students… She said it clearly. If you have [a] boyfriend or girlfriend and you feel like you have any plans in the future, you could use your one year OPT but its way easier to obtain a Green Card through [marriage]. If you have somebody just do it, it’s easier for you.” Meshal admits, however, that he is lucky–the Saudi government pays for his education abroad. Though he is still unsure whether it is even possible to work in the U.S. due to the higher denial rate for H-1B visas–the visa that allows a foreigner to work in the States. The denial rate went from 6% in 2015 to 24% in 2019 for new employment H-1B visas. Getting these visas in the past, Meshal explains, was as simple as “drinking water.” Problems with F-1 students using their American education to obtain a job in the states has been longstanding. The Pew Research Center revealed that OPT approvals far outpaced the number of H-1B approvals in 2016, leaving many international students unable to acquire a full-time job in the U.S. after college.

Hiring a Foreign National

If a student finds a job, they must report to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with a job title and description–the USCIS will either confirm or deny the position based on relevance to the degree of the student. One SCAD graduate student, who wishes to remain anonymous as they are applying for a post-graduate OPT, experienced problems with this process firsthand. The student graduated from the University of California San Diego with a bachelor’s in visual arts and applied to a furniture company in Oakland, California, as a designer; however, the company did not have a design department, making up a position to tell USCIS. The furniture company then switched the student to an accounting team to take care of shipping orders while USCIS believed they were a design office assistant. The student cited rejection from five companies after revealing that they are an international student.

H-1B permits need company sponsorship and must help with the visa registration documents; businesses might not even bother with a foreigner looking for a job due to this reason alone. Exasperating the problem further, USCIS cut the number of annual H-1B permits. Though the system is a lottery, STEM majors in the IT field have a slightly higher chance to get H-1B visas compared to other degrees. If an international students works at a tech company on a three-year OPT– available for STEM graduates–as an accountant, they would need to apply for an H-1B to continue working in the US; however, the likelihood of obtaining one is still minimal due to the lottery system. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the fall of 2019 proposed limiting the H1-B visa further by only accepting those who meet “the statuary definition of specialty occupation.”

“‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…’ was not written for just U.S. citizens.”

Hilary Woodworth, Senior Quality Manager hiring foreign nationals in the manufacturing goods sector for 25 years

The sclerotic immigration laws also prove to be cumbersome for businesses, causing cases like the furniture company in Oakland, California, to lie to the USCIS. Hiring foreign nationals is long and grueling, as Hilary Woodworth who has been hiring for 25 years in the manufacturing goods sector, explained by breaking down the lengthy process.

First, a company posts a position and interviews candidates to select the top three for the position. If all candidates are of equal skill, knowledge, and experience, preference is always a U.S. citizen. That is standard, but what proves to be more problematic is if only non-citizens are in the list. In that situation, the company has to extend the job search as long as it can before it becomes detrimental; keeping a role open, Hilary explained, can cause risk to a company’s product or process performance; passing the risk and increasing costs to customers using the product or service. If, at this point, no U.S. candidate made the list, they select the candidate with a preexisting visa. The visa paperwork restarts since an H-1B is not transferable from business to business–the likelihood of visa approval simply increases if the candidate previously made it through the lottery. If no current candidate has a visa, they extend the job offer to the top foreign national candidate. Since visa approval is not a guarantee, the job will not begin until approval, forcing both the business and the candidate to wait nearly a year. The company files and submits paperwork for the visa during the first quarter of the year and around April the company discovers whether the candidate can go through that year’s approval process. That process requires paperwork justifying the need to hire a foreign national, including proof that they found no U.S. citizen for the roll–hence all the steps for extended job searching. They compare paperwork regarding current salaries across the entire company to the prevailing wage for the job description submitted with the application that must be aligned to the education or degree obtained. Even if a student gets a position at a company with only an OPT, it is in the company’s best interest to fill out paperwork for an H-1B due to the lengthy process. The amount of extra work a company must go through to hire a foreign national is not attractive and acts more as a deterrent, but for those who need foreign help, the process is a headache.

The past few years have seen the U.S. become far less approachable for students wanting to use their American education for long-term jobs here in the States. The dramatic drop in F-1 visa students after 2015 reveals an alarming trend corresponding to a tightening visa system and racist rhetoric that disadvantages both businesses and students–who then take their American education abroad. Woodworth ended her interview with “‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…’ was not written for just US citizens.”

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