F-1 visa OPT – USCIS issues restrictions on work

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NEW YORK – It’s the turn of the F1 visa, issued to international students, to be in the harsh lens of an immigrant-wary Trump Administration. A new set of directives issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) sets restrictions on work that can be done during the critical Optional Practical Training (OPT) period after graduation, which for most students determine whether they can nurture hope of getting an H-1B visa, and subsequently, permanent residency.

The Trump Administration, pushed by anti-immigrant industry and conservative lobbies, have issued a plethora of orders in recent months to close loopholes in the tech sector where there are complaints galore of displacement of American workers.

Increased scrutiny of eligibility for the H-1B visa – especially in the tech sector, and likely revocation of work permits for spouses of those workers, on an H4 visa, has been initiated by the White House. It’s not yet seen full fruition of results, though.

This has not gone down well with disgruntled Trump supporters. They are incensed by the number of skilled foreign labor flooding the US workforce annually. The strident call has been to abolish the H-1B visa altogether, curb foreign students being used as cheap labor by the tech industry, at the detriment of American workers.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform has, in fact, sued the US government, to force them to divulge the top 20 H-1B employers, as well as the top 100 non-profits using H-1B visa workers. FAIR want to dissect salaries paid to H-1B visa workers, gauge skill level of employees hired on the visa; hope to expose loopholes in the system, and justify their angst. The government had earlier denied the request.

Now, the Trump Administration is clamping down, on the student visa front.

According to new rules by the USCIS, F1 visa students can be approved for an OPT only if they are allowed to work onsite, or the premises of a company who has sponsored them for the work-study period.

This totally blocks the ability of tech staffing firms and business consultancies, among others, from hiring students with the purpose to serve clients at different locations.

The argument by the USCIS is that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement lack authority to visit client sites for verification of work done by an F1 student.

Realistically, it’s a good move by the Trump Administration to stop abuse of foreign students, who often are at the mercy of employers during OPT period. There are no guidelines for salary to students on an OPT. Some are paid a pittance, others, not at all.

The lure of an H-1B visa stop most students from complaining about their predicament. Students, who have taken hefty loans to study in the US, are eager to make some money to satisfy expectations of anxious parents back home. They lack maturity to fight back, with fear of no other option but to head back to their home country.

A lot of staffing and temp firms for Indian outsourcing companies find international students easy prey during the OPT period. The vicious cycle continues as there is no dearth of helpless students every year.

Now, that exploitative practice will grind to a halt.

However, the new USCIS rule will undoubtedly hamper legitimate companies from hiring foreign students as temp workers during the OPT. It will also hurt students’ ability to get an H-1B visa.

The USCIS restrictions are onerous. If companies cannot send students on travel for business, or to another location within a city for work, they would hesitate to hire a student on an OPT. They would rather not get into a legal mess with the USCIS, face penalties, take a chance of getting a blemish on the company’s brand image. It would also place erring students in line for deportation.

What the Trump Administration should have done is to have declared they will decide on a case-by case basis, job offers for students on OPT. It’s easy enough to distinguish between who is a staffing firm, and who is not.

The Trump Administration should have taken cognizance of a new study from the National Foundation for American Policy, which shows that more US tech companies are hiring H-1B visa workers, versus Indian outsourcing firms.

According to the study, Amazon, Microsoft, Intel and Google, were among the top 10 employers for H-1B visa applications in 2017. They saw increases of more than 10 percent from the previous year.

International students need to be wary of the new USCIS rules, as any transgression during the OPT will come back to hurt them when they vie for an H-1B visa.

By now, what’s clear is that despite President Trump’s talk of the US welcoming highly skilled immigrants, it’s not really the case. While international students mean revenue for the 4,500 higher educational institutes in the US, there are no open arms to accommodate and assimilate those students after graduation.

In an interview to NDTV last month, Joseph Pomper, Minister of Consular Affairs, US Embassy in New Delhi, was candid to admit the wide chasm between an F1 visa and an H-1B visa.

“Students should be going to the US on an F1 visa for a wonderful education. Some folks who apply for F1 and later qualify for work visas, one of which is H 1 B visas, but there is no connection between them and one doesn’t really necessarily lead to another,” he said.

It remains to be seen if the new rules will have an effect on the number of Indian students who apply to study in the US. There are at present a total of 186,000 Indian students in the US. In the year ended September 30, 2017, the State Department issued a total of 393,573 F1 visas. That’s 17% less than in 2016, and 40% below the 2015 peak.

The Trump Administration might also restrict F1 visas to Chinese students, because of a trade stand-off. Chinese students, who are number one in terms of numbers in the US – followed by India – contribute $12 billion annually to the US economy.

More than anything else, what’s emerging and apparent from new strict set of rules on work and student visas, is Trump’s eagerness to strike down and reverse executive orders issued by President Obama.

This includes work permits for H4 visa holders, and a generous extension and open embrace of international students in STEM fields to work freely during the OPT period.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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