Campus Life, International, News

Staying in the United States proves huge hurdle for some graduates

With a month left until graduation, students are preparing to celebrate completing their degrees and embarking on the next stage of their lives. But for international students, there’s still one final hurdle to legally working in the United States: a government process involving thick stacks of paperwork and plenty of uncertainty.

When Samir Al Rayes finished his undergraduate degree in business in 2010, he had to decide whether he wanted to stay in the United States to work or go back to his home country of Saudi Arabia.

The decision was simple for him. Either fill out a “mountain of paperwork” or go back to familiar territory.

“I would have to do my documents 90 days before I graduate, wait three months for it to process and then I’m given a year to find a job,” Al Rayes said. “Why go through all that? I have family back home, I have network connects back home and I am more familiar with the culture.”

There were 2,761 international students studying at the University of Miami last year, and only 586 opted to stay in the United States to pursue work. The office of International Students and Scholars Services (ISSS) recorded this statistic by tallying the number of students who applied for the federal Optional Practical Training (OPT) program that allows foreign students to temporarily stay in the country after graduation to pursue work.

“All that trouble to stay?” Al Rayes said. “No, thank you.”

Those who decide to enroll in OPT would then face more uncertainty; OPT gives STEM majors three years to find employment in the United States and all other majors one year. Recent international graduates must find work within their declared majors. Al Rayes, a business major, developed an interest in public relations but wasn’t allowed to pursue it as a career.

OPT allows international graduates to find a job in the United States, but, in order to continue living in the country, they must have an employer sponsor for a H-1B visa, a temporary work visa. For employers, the sponsorship process can be costly.

Applying for a H-1B visa costs $5,000 in government fees, which includes filing for the form, fraud prevention fees and lawyer fees. Additionally, under the current regulation, the employer must pay the international graduate a minimum of $40,000 to $60,000 annually, varying by state and location. And those figures may grow larger.

President Donald Trump is reviewing a bill called the “Protect and Grow American Jobs Act” that would increase the minimum salary for international graduates to $100,000. Supporters of the bill argue that a higher cost for foreign workers would encourage companies to hire Americans.

Design by Savanah DeBrosse.

Even with a H-1B visa, graduates aren’t guaranteed a job. The visa enters the international graduate into a lottery system with other prospective international employees. Last year, the government received 236,000 applications in just the first week before closing the doors, according to an April 3 New York Times report. A computer at the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) then randomly selects those who would get the visa.

“You are paying all that money and putting in all that effort just for a chance,” said Kristi Mooti Persad, an alumna from Trinidad and Tobago. “There’s no magical formula for international students. You have to put yourself in the best possible position, and then it is left to chance.”

Mooti Persad decided to explore other options for staying in the country legally. She graduated in May 2011 with a bachelors in public relations and economics and decided to pursue her MBA in 2012. The lottery system prioritizes graduates with advanced degrees.

“International students have far less choices,” Mooti Persad said. “You don’t want to burn your OPT out into fields that won’t add to your portfolio and that won’t build your network.”

During her second OPT, once she graduated with her masters, Mooti Persad found another route through the E-2 investor visa, allowing an individual to stay in the United States based on investments. Mooti Persad then started her company, Premium Quality Group, which oversees other companies including Tio Fiesta, an event planning company.

Design by Savanah DeBrosse.

“This creates a for-sure future rather than a chance,” Mooti Persad. “I had to show that I was adding value to the American economy … injecting money to make it stronger.”

Mooti Persad spent many “sleepless nights” wondering if she would be able to work in the country.

“We really have our work cut out for us,” Mooti Persad said. “We need to keep on top of the laws, the opportunities, finding the people willing to help you. We have to prove something to stay here.”

In addition to the uncertainty and long preparation that students must go through with USCIS, many struggle with fully assimilating into American culture. For many international students, staying in the United States to work after graduation is less than ideal.

“There are times where I don’t understand my professor because some have different accents,” said Zhang Ziyang, a junior with an undeclared major, in Mandarin. “If I struggle in class, the real world will eat me.”

“A lot of what the international students face is that companies don’t want to go through that trouble for an undergraduate,” said Natalie Song, who is now an assistant director of Asia-Pacific engagement with the Alumni Association. “It’s a big obstacle.”

Song bypassed the lottery system by working at the university. Working at any nonprofit institution grants a H-1B visa to international graduates for three years, renewable as long as the organization proves that the graduate’s employment aligns with his or her major.

Song called the visa lottery “a whole other monster.”

Similar to what Mooti Persad did, Song pursued a master’s degree in electronic media in 2014 to give her a higher chance to be recognized by prospective hirers.

“Before, having a degree from the United States was a golden ticket to a good company,” Song said. “Now it’s not good enough. Now you need a masters or working experience to boost your chance.”

While some graduates choose to return to their home countries, others are determined to stay despite the hurdles, confident that they can contribute to American society and that the opportunities that await will make it worth it in the end.

“It would have been easier to stay in Trinidad and have a stress-free life,” Mooti Persad said. “But I really wanted the opportunity to learn what the American dream is. To make a better life for the future.”

April 5, 2017


Marcus Lim

4 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Staying in the United States proves huge hurdle for some graduates”

  1. Fabiana De Luca says:

    It is crazy that we as internatonal students have to go thru all that to stay in the country, find a job and try to live the American dream.

  2. Teddy Willson says:

    User Perturbed Pundit makes many compelling points in his comment. The process of receiving a visa as an international student in order to work is very difficult, and the political issues behind the composition of visa laws, rules or policy makes the process an issue for Americans as well.

  3. Perturbed Pundit says:

    To balance this article consider:

    Both the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program and the H-1B visa are vehicles that put US citizens at a great disadvantage and need to be reformed. Here’s why:


    OPT amounts to the government offering a $30,000 ($10,000 / yr) incentive to employers for hiring a foreign student instead of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. This bonus takes the form of the foreign students being exempt from payroll tax (due to their student status, which they technically still have under OPT in spite of having graduated). Why hire Americans, eh?

    Since this tax exemption from payroll tax was pointed out in a lawsuit against DHS, and has been one of the major points raised by critics, DHS was well aware of it. Yet they are refusing to address it or even acknowledge it.

    In contrast to DHS recent statements, in which they openly admitted that they intend OPT as an end-run around the H-1B cap, they now describe OPT in warm and fuzzy terms of “mentoring” (putting the T back into OPT). That raises several questions:

    If the U.S. indeed “needs” the foreign students (DHS’s phrasing on this point verges on desperation) to remedy a STEM labor shortage, why do these students need training? The DHS/industry narrative is that the U.S. lacks sufficient workers with STEM training, while the foreign workers are supposedly already trained. And, if workers with such training are indeed needed, why wont these special mentoring programs be open to Americans? Why just offer them to foreign students? Since DHS admitted that its motivation in OPT is to circumvent the H-1B cap, does that mean that if the cap were high enough to accommodate everyone, these same foreign students wouldn’t need training after all?


    While lobbying Congress for more H-1B visas, industry claims H-1B workers are the “best and brightest”. Come payday, however, they’re entry-level workers.

    The GAO put out a report on the H-1B visa that discusses at some length the fact that the vast majority of H-1B workers are hired into entry-level positions. In fact, most are at “Level I”, which is officially defined by the Dept. of Labor as those who have a “basic understanding of duties and perform routine tasks requiring limited judgment”. Moreover, the GAO found that a mere 6% of H-1B workers are at “Level IV”, which is officially defined by the US Dept. of Labor as those who are “fully competent”[1]. This belies the industry lobbyists’ claims that H-1B workers are hired because they’re experts that can’t be found among the U.S. workforce.

    So this means one of two things: either companies are looking for entry-level workers (in which case, their rhetoric about needing “the best and brightest” is meaningless), or they’re looking for more experienced workers but only paying them at the Level I, entry-level pay scale. In my opinion, companies are using the H-1B visa to engage in legalized age discrimination, as the vast majority of H-1B workers are under the age of 35 [2], especially those at the Level I and Level II categories.

    Any way you slice it, it amounts to H-1B visa abuse, all facilitated and with the blessings of the US government.

    The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has never shown a sharp upward trend of Computer Science graduate starting salaries, which would indicate a labor shortage (remember – the vast majority of H-1B visas are granted for computer-related positions). In fact, according to their survey for Fall 2015, starting salaries for CS grads went down by 4% from the prior year. This is particularly interesting in that salaries overall rose 5.2% [3][4].

    [1] GAO-11-26: H-1B VISA PROGRAM – Reforms Are Needed to Minimize the Risks and Costs of Current Program
    [2] Characteristics of H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Report to Congress October 1, 2013 – September 30, 2014
    [3] NACE Fall 2015 Salary Survey
    [4] NACE Salary Survey – September 2014 Executive Summary

  4. john80224 says:

    One correction. There is no $60K minimum salary except for a relatively small number of fields in various locations. The minimum salary is based on geography, experience level and role. The minimum for most visas approaches that level simply because most are applied for in high-value roles located in high cost of living locations. The across the board $60K minimum is a loophole allowing employers to avoid domestic workers so long as they hire their H-1Bs at that level.

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