EDITOR’S NOTE; This is the second of three stories about the impact of U.S. immigration policies. The series is written by Erica Nitschke, a Bismarck native and North Dakota State University student who was selected for a North Dakota Newspaper Association reporting fellowship in Washington, D.C.
Bharat Verma’s flat-billed hat and zip-up hoodie may not distinguish him from other students on North Dakota State’s campus.
But his accent — and his career path — certainly do.
Verma, a native of New Dehli, India, is in his senior year in the electrical engineering program with hopes to pursue a master’s in renewable energy.
His senior capstone focuses on building a machine that can separate cancer cells from healthy cells.
His goal is to have his work published.
“It can be possible, but we’ll see what happens, depends on the results,” Verma said, adding with a laugh. “If I get a little bit of success, it will be very good for my resume.”
Despite his ambitious work, Verma is worried about finding employment post graduation. “This is the one and the only, the biggest stress of all time you can ever have in a college life for international students,” Verma said. “I’ve been going to the job fairs, and it’s very nice to say, ‘We have 200 employers coming,’ but who will hire international people?”
The H-1B challenge
For Verma and the almost 1,000 international students on NDSU’s campus, his visa status labels him a potential risk to employers.
To work in the country, foreign nationals need a valid visa.
In 2014, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services switched the H-1B work visa program from first-come, first-served to a lottery system, making it more difficult to secure a chance at staying.
The costs of filing are big, and the risk is even bigger.
Of the nearly 233,000 petitions filed for H-1B this year, the USCIS will issue only 85,000: 65,000 for workers with a bachelor’s degree and 20,000 for those with a master’s. Selection is completely random.
Myriad Mobile, a local mobile software development company, sponsored an employee in the H-1B process for the first time this April.
“(It) is challenging to say the least, and it’s expensive at the same time,” Human Resource Manager Jon Walters said, “and the worst part of all of it is it’s just for a lottery so we could go through all of this for nothing, basically.”
Walters, who had no experience with the H-1B process before, filed with the help of an immigration attorney. He said the company has invested more than $7,000 in legal and application fees.
“We’ve had to write out six different checks so far, some going to the attorney, some going to different departments of the state or the federal government, and it’s really daunting to say the least,” Walters said. “… I think we’re still accumulating costs.”
Cost for small businesses
At a small and growing company, that number represents not only a contribution in hard dollars but in time and energy.
“It’s very cumbersome,” said Jim Gartin, president of the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation. “For a start up with 40 or 50 people to try to do that, it’s almost impossible for them to do it financially and time-wise.”
Walters said a significant number of Myriad’s staff contributed to finalizing the H-1B application.
“You really gotta get the timing down perfectly,” Walters said. “You gotta have all the wording down perfectly. You have to have all the checks sent in perfectly and the document needs to be packaged just so in order for it to go through.
“Just so you can cross your fingers and flip a coin.”
Walters and Gartin said they thought it was unlikely a company any smaller than Myriad would be able to take it on.
“Most of Indian students want to work for small companies, but the small companies cannot afford to basically hire people like me,” said Gaurav Kumar Nayak, a software engineer with Microsoft and Indian native. “… A big corporation like Microsoft or IBM or Apple, those are the only options because these are the companies who have those big bucks to basically take the hit of $9,000.”
Nayak, who graduated from NDSU in 2008, did not require sponsorship. He married his U.S.-born wife, making him a green card holder.
Because of this he was able to intern with a small tech group after graduation.
“Otherwise they would have never offered me an internship, let me tell you the truth,” he said. “For them, it’s too much money to basically spend on a person who they don’t think that they can hire at the end of the day.”
This puts international students looking for work in a tough spot.
Small companies can’t afford to take on the H-1B risk. Large corporations are extremely competitive — Microsoft recruits only the top 5 percent of most graduating classes.
For the other 95 percent of graduates, the options are limited.
“I have friends who, for them, the process has been really painful, especially since the lottery system came into picture,” Microsoft software engineer Ramesh Singh said.
Microsoft sponsored his H-1B in 2012. Singh, who is also from India and earned both his bachelor’s and master’s from NDSU, said he feels lucky he received his visa before the change.
“It’s too much hassle, at the end of the day,” Singh said. “I mean, I’m definitely much more free and a lot less stressed compared to my friends.”
Those who cannot secure an H-1B have two options: go back home or go back to school.
“I have some friends who are in real stress because they cannot get their H-1B anymore,” Singh said, “and they are paying high tuitions just to get a CPT so they can continue working.”
Optional Practical Training and Curricular Practical Training are two employment options available to students here on an F1 student visa.
OPT is a 12-month period after graduation in which students may work in a field related to their study,and find an H-1B sponsor. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics students are eligible for an additional 17-month extension.
CPT allows students to work up to 20 hours a week in a field related to their studies while still attending school.
“This is how you escape this trap,” Verma said. “Otherwise you have to be full-time student, you have to pay the same amount. That’s why you enroll in small things, certificates.”
Building a specialty
For Myriad and other small tech companies, sponsored employees need to be well worth the investment.
Walters said not only does their employee fit the company climate, he also has cross-platform experience, meaning he can work in multiple operating systems.
“I’ll just call it a unicorn: Someone that has great personality, great technical experience that can work well with the team that knows many different languages and can make things happen,” Walters said. “It’s really kind of a specific thing, but yeah, I mean, it’s a lot of time, effort and financial risk to put into something that you could be spending your time much more wisely.”
If Myriad can’t find a solution before Walter’s student visa expires in May, his employment and ability to stay in the U.S. ends.
“Which is extremely sad because he’s an awesome guy, he’s got awesome friends here. I mean it would be a shame to watch him go,” he said. “…. You don’t see that kind of tenacity every day, and all of a sudden we just kick him out because he didn’t get the lottery.”
Verma said the pursuit of his master’s and the topic of his capstone were chosen out of a hope to create more demand for his skill set. He said the need to stand out pushes international students like him into more specialized fields.
But competing with domestic workers still poses a challenge. “You just search all the way,” Verma said. “You apply to 300 companies hoping at least one will reply.”
NEXT: Complicated visa process limits business, city growth.