Visa Squeeze


Shortage of work permits is roadblock for international alumni, students

By Gerry Boyle '78

Illustration by Robert P. Hernandez
Illustration by Robert P. Hernandez

Ana Prokic '04 may be going home to Serbia soon"like it or not.

Prokic, who lives in Chicago, worked for a law firm there, and recently got her MBA, is among tens of thousands of former international students vying for an increasingly limited number of professional work visas. Unless she can find a job and a sponsor soon, she'll be packing her bags and heading for Belgrade.

"I've been here since I was sixteen," said Prokic, a graduate of the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West in New Mexico, Colby, and Loyola University's business school. "I don't now how to function as an adult anywhere else."
She may have no choice.

A Serbian citizen, Prokic needs something called an H1B visa from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in order to continue to work here. Since earning her master's with high honors from Loyola in February, Prokic has been on the job hunt. She's made it to the final rounds of interviews several times but says when potential employers hear she needs the visa, they find another candidate.

As one recruiter put it, "Oh, that's going to be hard," she recalled.

The problem is that under current U.S. law, the number of new six-year work visas for professionals is capped at 65,000, a third of the number allotted two years ago. On the first day that applications were accepted in fall 2006, more than 120,000 were received. (Some major IT companies apply for as many as 20,000 H1B visas each year.) This round, some 58,000 applications were chosen by lottery and the rest were dumped back into the pool, which doesn't bode well for future odds. And students and recent graduates fear that many employers will decide it isn't worth the trouble to go through the application process.

"This had not just the seniors worried but the juniors and sophomores," said Susan McDougal, associate dean of students at Colby. The underclassmen were saying, "'By the time we get up there, there will be nothing available.'"

McDougal has assured students and young international alumni that U.S. companies still will want their services. Some recent graduates have been hired under the one-year "optional practical training" visa offered students enrolled in U.S. colleges. Some have returned to their home countries temporarily to cross their fingers and hope for an H1B visa.

"I'm praying really hard," said Francis Chapuredima '06, who was working at a school in Kenya this summer as he waited for an H1B visa that would allow him to return to his mathematics teaching job at Berkshire School in Massachusetts.

Some recent graduates have been transferred to company offices in the UK and other parts of the world to wait out the U.S. visa process, McDougal said. Still others have gone to graduate school earlier than they had planned, putting the visa process off a year or two.

Nico Mwai '06, a computer science major from Kenya who, like Prokic, attended the UWC in New Mexico, landed an information technology job right after graduation. Mwai moved to New York City to work for Revenue Solutions, a company that provides financial technology and strategic planning. For a year he worked on tax software used by the City of New York.

But Mwai wasn't one of the lucky ones in the visa lottery, and he recently had to leave what he said was "exactly the kind of job I wanted to do." He said his supervisors at Revenue Systems were pleased with his work and sorry to have to let him go. But he isn't going far.

Mwai has enrolled at PC Tech, a vocational school in Manhattan, a move that will provide computer training"and allow him to stay in the U.S. while he awaits the next H1B offering. "I want to stay legal," he said.

McDougal pointed to efforts by industry (H1B visas are seen as essential to the U.S. technology industry) to persuade Congress to raise the professional work visa limit back to 115,000. But that hope was dashed when the comprehensive immigration reform bill"which included the H1B bills"died in Congress in June.

Meanwhile the pressure mounts for talented, well-educated young graduates like Prokic.

Told by her supervisor at the law firm that the firm would only sponsor lawyers, she decided to get her MBA in three semesters to be better poised for the visa application process. She earned high honors in finance and international business but, as of June, hadn't found a company in Chicago willing to hire her with the H1B visa issue looming. Serbia isn't in the European Union, which rules out a UK solution, she said. If she returns to Belgrade, she said, she'll likely find a job but at a fifth or less of the salary she would earn in the U.S. That will make it nearly impossible for her to pay off her student loans, she said, noting that in her time in the U.S. she has earned another good mark"a solid credit rating.

American friends tell her she'll find a way, including joking about a so-called "green-card marriage," but Prokic has always played by the rules and plans to continue to do so. "I've always done everything by the book," she said, "but because of that, I may have to pack up in six months and leave everything behind."

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