Are Trump & the H1B Visa bill good for Indian Students planning to study in the US?
The newly sworn-in President of the USA, Donald Trump is known for his fierce and inconsistent views on immigration. And so the Indian students aspiring to pursue a degree in the US have just one troubling question on their minds – Is it wise to invest in a foreign degree especially after Donald Trump has been elected as the President of America? Will the investment yield appropriate returns? How will this affect job prospects especially after the controversial changes proposed in the H1B worker visa bill? Is it safe to be an international student in the US especially after the increased attacks on minorities and the prevalent racism and xenophobia? (Also Read : 7 Reasons to Study in the USA )
Media tactics to increase ratings and viewer subscriptions has blown this issue way out of proportion. Speculations supposedly based on leaked documents (without any credible source) have created a lot of confusion and anxiety in the minds of current and prospective students. Three major issues need to be considered to analyze this situation – the H1B worker visa, OPT duration and safety issues.
What is the H1B Visa?
The H1B visa is a non-immigrant visa aimed to bring temporary foreign workers with special skills to fill in jobs when qualified Americans cannot be found. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) defines specialty occupation as something that requires theoretical and practical applications of specialized knowledge in fields such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), medicine, law, architecture, and social sciences. The H1B category allows foreign born professionals to work in the US legally and is therefore one of the most sought after visa classifications. To be eligible for H1B visa, an applicant must hold at least a Bachelors degree or its equivalent in the specific specialty. Additionally, the law requires the minimum annual wage to be $60,000 for a person to be qualified as an H1B holder. A company is categorized as H1B dependent if 15% of its workforce is made up of H1B visa workers. The US Congress sets a limit of 85,000 visas annually for the H1B category – 65,000 for general quota (foreign nationals) and 20,000 for foreign nationals holding a Masters degree or higher from US universities. When the number of applications exceed 85,000, the visas are picked up using a lottery system. This means getting an H1B visa depends on luck! (Also Read : Work Permit for Indian Students in the USA )
Criticism of the H1B System
The H1B system was designed to help American businesses grow by hiring skilled foreign workers. In simple words, it was supposed to complement American workers and not displace them. However, in recent years, the program has been exploited by global outsourcing firms who hire nearly half of the H1B workers. Federal law allows only one application for each foreign worker but companies can submit unlimited number of applications for their employees. This allows outsourcing firms to file mass applications which significantly improves their chances of winning. Additionally, many H1B workers are hired at wages below those (usually around $60,000) paid to American born workers for the same positions. Currently, Indian outsourcing firms like TCS and Infosys use 80% of the general H1B quota of 65,000. These companies typically hire workers with bachelor’s degrees at low wages and create acute shortages for Masters/PhD students from US universities and squeeze out start-ups and small businesses. Thus, many talented people miss out getting an H1B visa because their applications are rejected by the lottery system.
Recently, lawmakers introduced a new bill regarding H1B visa that proposed two major changes:
1. Increase the minimum pay for H1B workers to $130,000
2. Remove Masters quota for H1B
Optional Practical Training (OPT) and the Myth about it
Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a period during which international students can work under student visa to get practical training that complements their education. As per the US Immigration Laws, students possessing a STEM degree are entitled to 3 years of OPT after they graduate while students having a non-STEM degree can work for 1 year under OPT.
Recently, there have been talks about cancelling the OPT program or reducing the OPT period among many students. However, there has been no official news from the US government as well as the immigration department about cancelling the OPT or reducing its extension. Thus, this is once again a media rumor and students don’t need to worry about it.
How are the proposed changes in the H1B bill beneficial to students from India?
Table 1 shows a few job titles hired by outsourcing firms where the applicants usually have a bachelor’s degree while Table 2 shows the average salaries offered by some US based firms to Masters/PhD students from US universities.
Clearly, most of the top American companies recruit highly educated students possessing a Master’s degree/PhD and usually offer higher salaries. Also, students graduating with STEM degrees have a period of up to 3 years on their OPT. While the starting salary may not be as high as $130,000, most of the students usually reach that mark within the first 3 years depending on their skills and performance.
A major chunk of funding for US universities is obtained through the out of state (non residential) fees paid by students in the STEM courses which also includes millions of international students. Assuming rumors by the media that the OPT duration of 3 years might be scrapped and H1B visa won’t be issued to international students, this will significantly bring down the number of applications to the universities which will cut down their funding and affect their operations.
Eliminating the Master’s quota of 20,000 visas will not affect international students pursuing their degree. If the minimum wage for H1B holders is doubled, it will bring down the number of H1B petitions filed by the outsourcing companies and will make more room for highly educated workers possessing advanced degrees and skills. Thus, the proposed changes in H1B actually transform the system from a lottery system to a merit based system.
New Update about H1B Visa related to Computer Programmers
On March 31st 2017, the USCIS issued a new memorandum which clarifies that computer programmer would no longer qualify as a specialty occupation. The document also states that any candidate applying for an entry level computer programming position must show additional evidence showing that the jobs are complex and require specialized and advanced skills and degrees. This once again created chaos in the minds of many students. An entry level computer programmer position is usually given to people with a diploma or a bachelor’s degree who are typically hired at low wages. MS/PhD students are usually hired at high entry positions such as Senior Software Engineer or Process Engineer. Thus, this new change will actually tighten the scrutiny on outsourcing companies and Indian students don’t need to worry about it.
Safety Issues in the US
Given the recent surge in hate crimes and racial attacks on minorities in the US (which also includes the Kansas shooting where an Indian engineer was shot dead), many students have now become wary of going to the US due to security concerns. However, this has happened mainly in the rural areas and not in the cities and university/college towns. US universities take in students from all over the world and always strive to promote ethnic diversity. They are traditionally liberal and provide safe environments for learning. Thus there are very less chances of international students becoming victims of serious crimes. A few measures such as being connected with student organizations, not roaming around alone at night and avoiding dangerous areas can greatly minimize safety concerns. And again, you must not blindly go with the overhyped media reports!
So folks, don’t get demoralized with the current US scenario, go ahead, apply and chase your American dream!
(Also Read : Life in USA - Guide for an Indian Student )
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics