Foreign STEM Graduates Are Being Shut Out of the U.S. Job Market



It was shaping up to be a big spring for Rugved Kore. He was finishing up a master’s degree in engineering that had brought him from the suburbs of Mumbai to Pennsylvania, and two companies had just offered him postgraduation positions that would make him eligible for a visa program for graduates of U.S. universities in technical fields. “It was almost too good to be true,” Kore says. “Getting the job offers felt like a dream because we just don’t have these opportunities in India.”

Then the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. Both companies rescinded their offers, and Kore, who graduated from Pennsylvania State University in a virtual ceremony on May 9, could lose his legal status to stay in the U.S. if he can’t find a job by the end of the summer. If he returns home, Kore says, he worries he won’t be able to repay the $66,000 in student debt secured by his family’s house.

More than a million international students attended U.S. universities during the 2018-19 school year, making up 5.5% of students pursuing higher education, according to the U.S. Department of State. More than half of them pursued science, technology, engineering, or math—or STEM—fields. Those graduating this year are seeing their plans upended by shuttered campuses, closed borders, inflexible immigration policies, and an economy that seized up just as they were about to enter the workforce.

Kore had planned to take part in a program calledOptional Practical Training, which offers one-year visas to students looking to gain practical work experience in the U.S. STEM graduates are eligible to extend their visas for an additional two years. There were more than 220,000 students on the OPT program in the 2018-19 academic year, a number that doesn’t include people such as Kore who were just beginning the process. Amazon, Google, Intel, and Microsoft were among the top five employers of STEM OPT visa holders in 2018, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The program is commonly used as a bridge for high-performing students to enter the U.S. job market, especially in tech. Employers with workers on OPT visas regularly help them apply for green cards, or H-1B or other visas. If this year’s graduates can’t secure those first jobs because of the pandemic, they could leave the U.S. for good, a move with potentially serious implications for both them and the companies that rely heavily on international students to fill technical roles.

There’s a short window for students to apply for OPT after graduation, so trying again next year isn’t an option. A May 14 advisory from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said student visa holders could still be eligible if they went home and finished their studies from abroad, but the agency offered no guidance on whether they could apply from outside the U.S., or if it would extend or suspend deadlines around finding employment.

Immigration lawyers say there are few signs that the government is prepared to be lenient. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the Trump administration had discussed paring back the OPT program. Last month, Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the DHS was concerned by the influx of students on OPT programs.

The pandemic is even changing the math for employers with jobs to fill. “With all the fear and uncertainty about immigration and visas, companies don’t even want to touch these students right now,” says Harinder Singh, a career development expert at the University of California at Irvine, which has 7,100 international students from 94 countries. At the University of Texas at Dallas, at least 30 international students have had their employment offers withdrawn or internships canceled.

It’s not an issue only for new graduates. In early May, Candice Guan, a native of Wuhan, China, lost the data analytics job she’s held for more than a year. Since she’s currently on a STEM OPT visa, she now has until mid-July to start a new job before her legal status expires. “It’s just really stressful and upsetting knowing that I might have to pack up and leave in a few days,” she says.

An increasing number of international students have been choosing to forgo a path to U.S. citizenship and instead seek employment in places like China or India, says Tim Luzader, executive director of career success at Purdue University. Career services directors at Purdue and several other top science schools have been developing plans to help students find jobs in their home countries, particularly in China. The vast majority of students using the OPT program are from India and China, according to data from U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.

Some foreign students who left for spring break, or who returned home when their campus closed, haven’t been able to come back to the U.S. because of travel restrictions. They now say they’re no longer eligible to apply for OPT visas, which require applicants to be in the country when submitting their paperwork.

Nihal Pai, a 23-year-old computer science senior at Tufts University whose job offer was rescinded in late March, returned home to Singapore as it was closing its borders because he was concerned about what would happen if he got sick in the U.S. “I thought it wouldn’t be the safest place for a non-U.S. citizen to be in terms of hospitals and health-care resources,” he says.

Pai had secured an OPT visa before he left, but his legal status is tied to employment. So if he doesn’t find a new position by the end of summer, he’ll lose the visa. “I’d like to come back to the U.S.,” he says, “but I don’t know when I’ll be able to safely return.”

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