International students struggle to find employment in age of ‘Buy American, Hire American’

Maddie Burakoff, Web Editor

When members of Yoni Pinto’s extended family came to the United States from Turkey about 20 years ago, they were able to find employment, get green cards and eventually become citizens, fulfilling the “American dream,” the Weinberg senior said.

Back then, the main challenge was finding an employer willing to sponsor a visa, said Pinto, a former Daily staffer. In the past few years, though, the visa process and employment search for Pinto and other international students have grown more difficult, he said.

He said the election of President Donald Trump, who has expressed an intention to change the rules for visa distribution, has added another layer of uncertainty as he heads into the visa application process next year.

“Since the election, we’ve kind of taken a step back in making sure that we’re having a conversation with students about what their goals are and where they want to be,” said Mark Presnell, executive director of Northwestern Career Advancement. “That conversation used to be fairly brief — you would come in, ‘Where do you want to be after graduation?’ They would all say in the U.S. … (Now) we’re seeing international students really exploring what that might be.”

Most Northwestern international students have F-1 student visas, according to the International Office website. After graduation, students can choose to complete Optional Practical Training, a 12-month work authorization that can be supplemented with a 24-month extension for science, technology, engineering and mathematics students.

After this temporary authorization expires, Pinto said most students who want to stay in the U.S. will apply for the H-1B visa for skilled foreign workers with sponsorship by an employer. Though the program has previously accommodated most applicants, he said the process has grown highly competitive, in part because of the outsourcing of jobs by major technology companies.

In 2016, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported receiving over 230,000 applications for the 85,000 visas allocated for the 2017 fiscal year. The recipients are determined through a random lottery process.

“A lot of these companies started to not hire international students anymore, because it’s just a gamble,” Pinto said. “The entire visa system became compromised.”

Last month, Trump signed an executive order demanding a review of H-1B policies as part of his “Buy American, Hire American” initiative. It is unclear what changes might be made to the visa-granting process in the long run, Presnell said. Some might actually be beneficial to Northwestern graduates, like a prioritization of students who studied in the U.S. over those who went to school in other countries, he said.

However, other potential changes would put recent graduates at a disadvantage, Pinto said — for example, a proposed six-figure salary floor for visa applicants would be a hurdle, since few could snag such high-paying jobs with undergraduate degrees. The changes were stated in a bill proposed by U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Ca.). According to the bill, the increased salary level only applies to H1B-dependent employers.

The future of the visa program still remains a “question mark” for international students, Pinto said.

McCormick senior Edwin Argueta, who studies chemical engineering, said he has found his international status to be a “huge roadblock” in his job search, especially in a field dominated by big-name companies whose government contracts prohibit them from hiring foreign workers. Argueta, who is from Honduras, said he is completing his master’s degree next year to give him more time to search for employment, and may have to continue to pursue a higher degree.

At the job fairs held by the University, there are generally few companies that will hire international students, Argueta said. For international students, he said he feels more of the burden is on individuals to network and reach out to people on their own, as many of the resources offered by the university are not helpful.

“It’s a little bit discouraging in that sense,” Argueta said. “You feel like you’re more alone as an international student when you’re looking for a job, especially as an engineer.”

Presnell said NCA speaks with recruiters who come to campus about the importance of being open to international employees. When the companies are still unwilling to consider international students, he said they encourage the companies to be “transparent” about their hiring policies.

Still, Pinto said, the policies indicated on career fair brochures aren’t always accurate, making it difficult for international students to decide where to concentrate their efforts. He said he often finds himself turning to fellow international students rather than university resources for support.

“A lot of people get much more out of those personal student connections than they do out of the NCA,” Pinto said.

Eish Sumra, a Medill junior from the United Kingdom, said he also turns to his peers for advice and thinks the International Office hasn’t done enough outreach for international students.

Despite the challenges, Pinto, Argueta and Sumra all said many of their fellow international students still intend to seek work in the U.S. In the future, Argueta said he hopes the H-1B process becomes more merit-based to encourage foreign workers to bring in innovation.

“People from all over the world are trying to come to this country, study and make an impact, and you’re not letting them,” Argueta said. “There’s a lot of very talented Americans, but it could also be that occasional guy who could do something that will change the way this country operates. You’re just letting that talent go.”

This story was updated to clarify that Pinto’s extended family came to the U.S. from Turkey and that the proposed changes to the salary level for visa applicants only applies to H1-B employers. 

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