All You Need to Know About Working in the U.S. as an Immigrant

By: Minnie Ongsricharoenporn
Posted on May 8, 2017

Note: This piece was my data journalism capstone project focusing on data about immigrant workers in the US. The writing process involved cleaning a 3 million-entry data set that contained the number of H-1B visa petitions between 2011-2016, and extrapolating relevant aspects of the data to use as the focus of the story. The data visualizations were created using Tableau, and the data was queried using PostgreSQL and Microsoft Access. The original post is inaccessible due to password protection under the class' site, so you can find the entire piece below.

As the Trump administration implements more stringent immigration policies and tightens up the work authorization process, foreign workers’ hopes of arriving in the U.S. to pursue the American Dream are now one step further away from becoming reality.

This is a pressing issue for those aspiring to work in the U.S., who must go through arduous processes to work here legally. But also entangled in this matter are U.S. corporate companies, who for a long time, have been reliant on highly skilled foreign workers, especially in technology, finance, and consulting.

Whether for its diversity or opportunities for career growth, the U.S. is a major destination for foreign workers who dream of working at a major U.S. firm, seeking career advancement, or even pinning hopes that their career will lead to a permanent residency or, eventually, U.S. citizenship. All of these goals can only be met when a non-U.S. citizen has one necessary document: the H-1B visa.

Historically, H-1Bs were fairly easy to obtain. In 2001, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services increased the number of annually granted H-1B visas from 115,000 to 195,000 to accommodate the influx of applications exceeding the annual cap. This resulted in more available visas than those granted, but the number of applications would not reach the cap until 2004, with more demand for the visa following in recent years. In response to the demand, the USCIS once again decreased the annual cap, this time to 85,000 a year, with 20,000 reserved for those with a graduate degree.

The increased need for H-1B visas, both on a foreign worker’s or employer’s part, has seen a steady climb in the number of certified applicants in the last few years. Note that these are not applicants who were granted the H-1B visa, but those who are eligible to apply after they have been approved for a labor condition application (LCA).

Based on a six year period analysis of data from the USCIS, the biggest increase can be seen between 2013 and 2015, with almost twice the number of eligible applicants applying in 2015. This can be largely attributed to the increased job demands from the growing technology and financial sector, with startups like Snapchat and Uber experiencing their first traction in 2013, and a number of new startups appearing in the market.

At the same time, there have been sharp plunges in denied applications, with the steepest decrease between 2011 and 2013. The supply-demand relationship between the certified and denied application trends illustrates the increased need for highly skilled foreign workers, which companies rely on to fill in the shortage of Americans who are qualified for tech jobs. This means great news for immigrant workers who want to forge their own career path in the U.S.

The path to obtaining an H-1B visa

Foreigners who think about working long term in the U.S. are most likely to start out by attending college in the U.S. As college students in the U.S., all international students are granted 12 months of work authorization called the Optional Practical Training (OPT), which they can opt to use prior to graduating (pre-completion), after graduating (post-completion), or both. After the OPT expires, international students who wish to continue working in the U.S. must get sponsored by an employer for the H-1B visa, a work visa for highly skilled foreign workers, which allows them an additional three years of work authorization and is extendable up to six years.

Students can luck out on the OPT based on their major or program choice. Those who study in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields and have corresponding degree codes on their I-20 (Certificate Eligibility for Non-Immigrant Students) that match the U.S. Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement’s STEM Designated Degree Program List are granted a STEM extension on their OPT, which they can apply for three months before their initial OPT expires. This will give them an additional 24 months of legal work authorization on their F-1 student visa without having to apply for the H-1B yet. Additionally, this also increases their chances of getting an H-1B visa as they have three chances of applying for it rather than one.

But getting a job on the OPT often comes with restrictions. Students are only allowed 90 days to be unemployed during the OPT, with an additional 60 (a total of 150) allowed for students on the STEM extension. This often adds unnecessary stress to students who have to shoulder the burden of both completing their degrees and finding employment within a time frame that will allow them to legally remain in the U.S.

For those banking on the OPT to lead to an H-1B visa, having a potential career path in mind and strategically planning your college major is your best bet.

Such was the case with Edwin Guyandi, a financial analyst at the NYC-based investment management firm Newtyn Management. Arriving from Indonesia with the goal of working in the U.S. after graduation due to the abundance of opportunities, he studied business at New York University, concentrating in statistics and finance. “Tailoring my course to fit with the STEM guideline is very important because getting STEM [degree] will increase my probability of securing an H-1B visa,” he said.

Those with specialized degrees in the fields of business, finance, and computer science, are much likelier to secure a job, and a work visa, because graduates are usually equipped with in-demand skills most employers are looking for.

The top jobs that are most likely to guarantee a long-term and stable career through H-1B visas are mostly computer related, so students who see themselves remaining in the U.S. in the long run might think about getting a degree in or related to computer science to guarantee the top H-1B sponsoring jobs.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the most H-1B visa applications were submitted for Computer Systems Analysts positions in the past five years, with 528,844 applications being submitted for reviews. Among the top three categories, Application Software Developers and Computer Programmers follow shortly with 431,3864 and 405,327 applications, respectively. These computer-based positions imply that applicants held computer science or related degrees, reaffirming computer science as the number one STEM major in the U.S. among college students.

International students who receive STEM degrees are also at an advantage compared with foreign workers who apply for the H-1B from overseas, as they have a leg up in terms of the smoother transitioning from being on the OPT to the H-1B. Originally from Thailand, Adithep Narula, a cybersecurity consultant at PwC, graduated from NYU with a computer science degree and got his job through an on-campus recruitment event. The ease in recruitment for employers also helps international students in the U.S. more likely to be offered a job than their non-student counterparts.

The H-1B process

H-1B visa applications are submitted by employers, and the process is evaluated on a case by case basis. Sponsoring an H-1B visa for a foreign employee is a huge investment for employers, who pay hefty application fees from anywhere between $2000 to $8000 per applicant. In addition to the base fee and USCIS anti-fraud fee, the total fee for each application also depends on the company’s size and whether premium processing was selected for an applicant, although this option is no longer available as of the 3rd of March as part of the new administration’s plan to reduce the foreign worker cap.

At big firms like PwC, all international applicants have their applications submitted every year, regardless of the amount of time they have left on their OPT. Despite having worked only on his initial OPT, Narula has already had an H-1B application submitted once. “They apply for me automatically every year,” he says. Even if he does not secure an H-1B visa this year, Narula still has two more years to have his application approved for an H-1B work visa.

Who you should work for

Keeping in mind which employers you want to work for is an additional extra step that can be helpful in securing a long-term job and an H-1B visa. Big companies—especially tech, finance and consulting firms— are most likely to sponsor due to their demand for highly skilled workers, coupled with a big budget dedicated to hiring foreign talent.

Within the past six years, the top 10 employers have consisted equally of tech, finance and consulting firms. Most firms that appear consistently in every year’s top 10 firms, like Tata Consultancy, Wipro and Infosys, actually serve all three industries. Interestingly, all three firms are also based in India. This isn’t surprising, considering more than half of all H-1B’s are awarded to Indian nationals.

Overseas consulting firms like Infosys and Wipro basically outsource talent from their country and apply for their employees’ H-1B visas to send them to the U.S. But due to President Trump’s recent limitations placed on the H-1B expediting process, which can potentially delay or disqualify applicants’ submissions, companies like Infosys are forced to give their jobs to American workers. Although this benefits the Trump presidency’s goal to create more jobs for Americans, it is still a loss in foreign talent for U.S. companies, and ironically, a gain for India since they get to retain their talent and turn to developing their own tech industries instead.

Aside from cherry-picking employers who are likeliest to sponsor H-1B visas, another option that students are less likely to take on the OPT, due to the complicated legal process, is self-employment. Some students who worry about not being employed in time, or simply have a business idea they want to pursue, can incorporate themselves and start a business under the initial 12-month OPT, as long as they are working on something related to their field of study.

Coming straight out of NYU with an individualized computer science degree, Abhi Agarwal founded NewsAI, an artificial-intelligence based newswire company for PR professionals. He had just applied for an H-1B visa, sponsored by his own company, after using up his initial OPT time period. But due to the unusual nature of his situation compared to those of other international students, he is worried about how President Trump’s decision to forgo premium H-1B processing and the administration’s other implementations will impact him. “I’m worried about the uncertainty,” he said. “The lawyers were constantly changing and I wasn’t sure how to keep up with them.”

What’s next for foreign workers?

Reports from the New York Times and Bloomberg claim that H-1B petitions for the 2017 fiscal year, the first under the new administration, have seen a decrease for the first time. This may potentially limit the number of incoming industry-specific foreign workers, especially those who are most heavily relied upon by Silicon Valley tech giants.

Some who have arrived in the U.S. foreseeing a long-term career here or planned to settle down later on have changed their minds since Donald Trump assumed his presidency.

Lorraine Capone, a Canadian finance graduate from NYU, is having second thoughts about her long-term goals in the U.S. Capone will begin working as an investment banking analyst at HSBC in New York later this year, but no longer plans to apply for an H-1B visa after her STEM OPT expires.

“Initially I had intended on staying in the U.S. long term to work but after this most recent election and having spent these past four years living in the U.S., I don’t believe I intend to live here for very much longer,” she said. “The new administration definitely soured my view of America and the values of many American citizens.”

Despite her change of heart, she still believes the U.S. is a great place to jump start a career in finance. “I chose to come to the U.S. for school because I had decided to study finance and wanted to be learning and working in the city with the best opportunities and biggest business market.”

Trump and his administration’s decision to put America first is understandable, but he fails to notice that the foundation of America is built on immigration. The diversity of this nation is what makes it different from the rest of the world, whether in its culture, traditions, economy, or workforce. Immigrant workers contribute significantly to the U.S. economy, bringing with them skills that may not be as emphasized in the U.S.’ education. Successful immigrant entrepreneurs help create jobs for Americans, mobilizing and profiting the American economy.

Though this might not be the best time for foreign workers to seek jobs in the U.S., many are still hopeful about getting some work experience here, even on a shorter stay. Hailing from China, hospitality graduate Aria Lu does not qualify for the STEM OPT that others in STEM fields are, but she still finds her time in the U.S. valuable and a good place to kick off her career. “I want to gain more working experience in the U.S. before I eventually move back to China, so I can get a higher starting point in the future,” she said. “I still love what I do no matter where I am.”


Web Design: Maria Mungsommai

I designed a website for Central Saint Martins jewelry design graduate Maria Mungsommai to feature her work and be used as a digital springboard for launching her jewelry line. The site places the audiences' focus on her work rather than the site design, resulting in the clean and simple "bare minimum" aesthetic Maria wanted for her site. Due to recent changes, her website has been taken down and I have not featured it on here per her request.