After travelling to America on a student visa to pursue a Master’s from Babson College, Abhinav Sureka is ready to launch a brand-new business project. But Abhinav’s endeavours could fall short, since his inability to obtain a H-1B visa – a temporary work permit typically obtained through a lottery, with lower odds of winning than a coin toss – means he could be forced to return to the family home in India.
In a bid to help non-native students like Sureka, helping them maintain their U.S. business ventures, Babson and at least five other U.S. schools are fostering a new approach that critics have described as ‘exploiting a legal loop hole’.
Via AP. Babson College graduate school alumnus Abhinav Sureka, of Mumbai, India, poses in his work space at the college in Wellesley, Mass.
The H-1B visa is the primary work permit for foreign nationals in the U.S., reserved for employees with at least a Bachelor’s degree who work in speciality occupations such as maths or technology. Workers must be sponsored by an employer to enter the annual lottery for the 85,000 visas awarded in the U.S. This year alone, 236,000 workers applied for the H-1B visa.
But workers employed by the universities – or outside workers who provide services to universities – are exempt from the cap and can directly secure a H-1B visa.
A number of U.S. schools are taking advantage of that exemption, establishing “global entrepreneur in residence” programmes that allow a number of graduates to work part-time on-campus, often as student mentors, in a bid to help fit the exemption which would ultimately allow them to remain in the country.
“This movement came about because of challenges that student visa holders were beginning to face when they had completed a programme,” said Bill Stock, a Philadelphia Attorney and President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). “There really aren’t a lot of other visas that would allow someone to work temporarily.”
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The exemption was originally created to help universities hire researchers, urging critics to point out that these schools are exploiting a loop hole. In a letter sent to the U.S. Immigration Chief earlier this year, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa deemed the procedure a “black-handed attempt” to avoid federal rules, damning the practice as a “seemingly unlawful” interpretation of the rules.
Controversial Presidential candidate Donald Trump has predictably opposed the H-1B visa, claiming it takes jobs that rightfully belong to American workers and should therefore be banned.
College officials state they are merely using flexibility in the law’s language to address a growing issue. As more international students invest in U.S. education, many want to remain in the country to pursue personal business projects upon completion of their studies. However, with few legal routes beyond the H-1B lottery, graduate entrepreneurs are routinely forced to go home.
“Every year, we figure Massachusetts says goodbye to over 1,000 graduate students who otherwise want to stay and start a company,” said William Brah, leader of a programme that seeks to help foreign-born entrepreneurs at the University of Massachusetts’ Boston (UMB) campus. “I mean, it’s stupid. You couldn’t come up with a more flawed immigration system if you tried.”
Via AP.Babson College graduate school alumnus Abhinav Sureka, of Mumbai, India, right, types in his work space at the college in Wellesley, Mass.
The UMB programme is open to graduates from any U.S. university. Since its inception in 2014, the programme has helped 20 graduates obtain visas and their businesses have helped create 260 jobs, according to the school.
Similar programmes have been launched at the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University, all of which are considerably smaller, accepting a combined total of just six graduates per year.
At the City University of New York, an exclusive programme seeks to draw 80 business owners from around the world – not just graduates from U.S. universities.
“We wanted to try to find some way that would make it possible for an entrepreneur to come to the country, without us having to pay them to do it,” said the programme’s Chief, Andy Holtz.
Under the H-1B visa, the majority of workers can remain in the U.S. for up to six years. After that, candidates can either return home or pursue another visa, including one for permanent residence.
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Colleges claim the new programmes benefit their local economies, but also help the schools when it comes to recruiting international students – a group that is charged full-price for tuition, unlike most domestic students in the U.S.
At Babson, Sureka and his company’s two co-founders – also international students – are considering their applications for the college’s new programme. They’ve so far managed to raise US$73,000 for their company, Teplo, which plans to produce a high-tech portable tea brewer. After graduating in May this year, the entrepreneurs are facing a one-year countdown before their student visas expire.
“What if we don’t get a visa?” Sureka said. “We can’t continue to work in the U.S., and the amount of time we have spent on this project is all wasted.”
John Miano, leading expert on the effect of foreign labour and technology workers, believes the international student employability scheme being fostered by an increasing number of U.S. universities goes much further than just ‘exploiting’ a leagal loop hole. “I believe these universities are receiving horribly bad legal advice,” he says.
“Yes, they may have found a legal loophole in the H-1B programme but there are other problems with what they are doing. One example is that an employment programme for foreign students is inherently illegal, so these universities may be subjecting themselves to huge liability.”
Additional reporting by Associated Press.
Image via AP Images.