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Even after executive action, no guarantees for international students

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Posted at 5:20 PM, Nov 24, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-24 17:46:33-05

Walking away from a Metro stop at the George Washington University campus, Varun Gondegaonkar didn’t look different from other students there.

But unlike his peers, the information systems and technology management graduate student was wondering if the United States would boot him out of the country.

As an international student from India, Gondegaonkar, 23, is in the U.S. with a temporary student visa. He has some leeway after graduation when it comes to how long he can stay and work in the country – but if that post-graduation grace period ends and he doesn’t have a work visa, he’ll be on the next flight home.

“There’s not many options, I would say,” he said.

Students like Gondegaonkar have some reason to be optimistic after the president announced Thursday he would use an executive order to overhaul parts of the U.S. immigration system. Though the announcement focused on bringing undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows,” it also included some changes that would help those majoring in fields related to science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) stay in the country longer.

But that’s still not enough to guarantee Gondegaonkar can fulfill his goal to work here permanently as a business or data analyst.

About 886,000 international students were enrolled in U.S. colleges during the 2013-2014 academic year, according to a report released Monday by the Institute of International Education. That’s about 70,000 more than last year and 300,000 more than in 2002-2003.

Still, the U.S. is losing ground to other countries in terms of students coming here to study – something that Rachel Banks, the director of public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, partly attributes to the unfriendly U.S. immigration system. According to NAFSA, the U.S. went from having 28 percent of the world’s globally mobile students in 2001 to 19 percent in 2011.

Immediately after graduating, many students enroll in a program called optional practical training. OPT allows international students to stay for 12 months after graduating if they’re working full time in a job related to their degree. STEM majors can apply for a 17-month OPT extension.

The president’s executive action on immigration will extend that time STEM majors can stay. He will also attempt to broaden eligibility criteria for the STEM extension to include those who have an undergraduate degree in STEM fields but a more advanced degree in something else, said Heather Stewart, director of immigration policy at NAFSA.

Nearly 106,000 students or graduates of U.S. universities were enrolled in OPT during the 2013-2014 academic year, according to the IIE report.

After their time is up in the OPT program, individuals can apply for what is known as an H-1B visa. It makes the most sense for someone graduating from college because its requirements line up with where most recent graduates are: they must hold a job that requires a college degree and is related to their field of study.

But one difference between the H-1B and OPT illustrates why students might be looking elsewhere when deciding where to study. Though H-1B visa holders can travel outside the U.S., the law is unclear about whether those in the OPT period can travel internationally and return to the United States.

That ambiguity is discouraging to students like Cong Zhang, 24, an electrical engineering graduate student at George Washington University. Originally from China, she hopes to be on the H-1B as soon as she graduates in May so she can visit home while working in the U.S.

If that doesn’t work, she’ll consider finding work in another country with less-stringent immigration rules.

If I didn’t get the H-1B, I also can go back to China“If I didn’t get the H-1B, I also can go back to China,” Zhang said. “There are opportunities around the world.”

Zhang might not get her visa because the number of visas is capped.

The U.S. grants 65,000 H-1Bs visas a year to applicants with less education than a master’s degree. An additional 20,000 visas can go to those who have a U.S. master’s degree. Graduates working in higher education, the government or at non-profits are exempt from both caps.

Today, more people want H-1B visas than the government is willing to issue. Of the 176,000 people who applied for them in 2013, the United States granted visas to 153,000. Because of this, the system has become somewhat of a lottery – with the unlucky applicants being told to leave after their OPT period expires.

Of course, a push for new immigration laws could change these rules.

A bill passed by the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives would increase the H-1B cap from 65,000 to between 115,000 and 118,000. The cap each year would be determined by a formula tied to employer demand and the unemployment rate.

Still, as more international students come to the U.S., demand may continue to outpace availability of H-1B visas.

Because of the backlog to obtain a green card to live in the U.S., critics say the H-1B has become a crutch for U.S.-educated non-citizens who want to work in the country and stay here permanently.

Allan Goodman, the president and CEO of IIE, said he thinks the United States will eventually end up with a need-based system like the one used in Australia. The country would assess the demand for workers in certain industries – pharmaceuticals, for example – then set a quota for the number of those workers who could immigrate.

“I’m not sure the system for H-1B actually works,” Goodman said. “I think if you ask most employers, they would prefer immigration reform and doing away with the H-1B and the caps and the annual registration cycle.”

But as President Barack Obama publically mulled the possibility of issuing the executive actions earlier this week, Goodman predicted those actions would likely leave changes to the H-1B visa program behind.

“I think it will be talked about less if the president steps through executive powers,” Goodman said Monday. “That will be so controversial and so big, the H-1B stuff will be way, way down on the list of priorities.”

Reach reporter Sean McMinn at sean.mcminn@scripps.com or 202-408-1488. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter​.​