By Reese Oxner, Texas Tribune
The Trump administration’s suspension of issuing new H-1B visas for specialized roles — such as professors, researchers and computer programmers — is likely to hurt Texas universities, professors, experts and students say.
And, some say, the suspension likely won’t preserve jobs for U.S. workers as unemployment hovers at devastating levels during the coronavirus pandemic.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on June 22 that suspends the issuance of several visas designated for foreign workers until the end of the year. These visas include H-1B visas for high-skilled laborers and J-1 cultural and educational exchange visas, among others.
“It hit the United States like a slap in the face — and no one saw this coming,” said Menelike Deresse, immigration specialist at Indeed.com. “It’s just not helpful in this climate, especially what the world’s going through with COVID-19 right now.”
Deresse, who previously worked at the University of Texas at Austin for over six years advising incoming international scholars and students said the H-1B visa is the most common work visa he encountered. He expects that higher education institutions will have to delay or rescind offers due to the suspension of new permits — a process which can often take six to nine months.
His previous employer is already discouraging its international students from leaving the U.S. to avoid any potential problems down the road.
“Because of the rapidly changing immigration landscape as well as entry limitations related to COVID-19, we recommend that all scholars refrain from international travel until entry restrictions expire or are lifted,” Sonia Feigenbaum, senior vice provost for global engagement, said in a statement to students..
UT-Austin had 1,220 international students using either H-1B or J-1 visas in 2019, according to the Institute of International Education. Texas A&M University had the most of any Texas college with 1,300.
And when it comes to H-1B approvals across all industries, the Dallas-Fort Worth area had the nation’s second highest number from 2010 to 2016, College Station-Bryan area ranked fifth, according to Pew Research data.
There were 2,477 H-1B visas granted or renewed at Texas educational institutions in 2019, which includes both public and higher education institutions, according to state data. Because the visas are valid for three years and renewable for three more, the number of active visas in Texas is higher.
Deresse predicts that many professors who planned to come to the U.S. using a H-1B visa might move on to other international universities — setting back domestic institutions that are trying to recruit talent.
“You’re hurting institutions [and] businesses — you’re not allowing them to bring in talent that they need or they want, and you’re forcing them, if necessary, to hire individuals that are not up to speed or can do the job that you know someone else could do,” he said.
Alfonso López de la Osa Escribano is the director of the Center for U.S. and Mexican Law at the University of Houston Law Center and has used a H-1B visa for three years. He says that limiting U.S. universities’ ability to recruit international talent inhibits progress and makes them less competitive to ones around the world.
“Are we really benefiting the United States by the fact that we are limiting the H-1Bs in higher education? I don’t think so,” he said.
At its heart, a university is about collaboration and the exchange of ideas, he said. Limiting this hurts not only the universities, but also the students who attend them.
Deresse said the positions filled are typically unique, and they’re recruiting international talent for a reason.
“Why would an institution spend thousands and thousands of dollars to hire someone whereas you can hire someone a U.S. worker for free?” he said. “They’re making these tough decisions of paying money to attract the best talent to get the job done.”
He thinks the order will create vacancies in areas that already face shortages.
“To execute or to do this executive order right now when we’re roughly five months before an election, in my opinion, just sounds very political,” Deresse said “It’s a way to have the current U.S. administration say that ‘We stuck to our promise of protecting U.S. workers and and making America great.’”
Newton Lee, president of the Institute for Education, Research, and Scholarships, said he has already seen how the decision has affected the students that he advises and caused them to rethink their plans to come to the U.S. — a trend that has been observed in the last few years.
New enrollment of international students at U.S. universities declined by more than 10% between 2015 and 2019, according to the Institute of International Education.
“But the executive order actually makes it worse,” Lee said. “What I’m seeing right now is that because of Trump’s executive order, we have a lot of students that want to go to Canada instead of the U.S. for education and internships.”
He said limiting the U.S.’s ability to attract the best talent disadvantages the country — think of Albert Einstein, he said, imagine if he immigrated to another country during World War II.
The jobs filled by H-1B holders are typically specialized and often technical, especially ones at universities, he said. Removing international workers from consideration doesn’t open up more jobs, it leaves the positions empty, he said.
One Texas university graduate said if the H-1B visa wasn’t an option when she was looking for universities, she probably would not have come to the U.S. from her home country. The woman asked that The Texas Tribune not identify her because she fears it could jeopardize the status of her visa.
“Generally, when somebody plans to come to the United States to study, I think [they] have a plan to kind of work here,” she said. “[Not having the visa] would have definitely affected my decision to come here.”
The graduate from the University of Texas at Arlington said it’s very expensive for international students to study in the U.S. There’s out-of-state tuition costs, rent, transportation and among other living expenses. Not being able to apply for employment through the H-1B visa makes it harder to pay back debts associated with seeking education — and makes it impossible for graduates to contribute to the country’s economy, she added.
She has been working in the U.S. on a H-1B visa and initially feared that her own would be in jeopardy, but it remains unaffected under the current order. Still, she’s begun making plans in case there are further orders that could affect her, and she is encouraging her friends to do the same.
The sudden nature of the order caused a standstill for many people’s plans, she said. From what she’s heard from her friends, many are looking at other countries or returning home, despite that the order is set to expire at the end of the year.
“There have always been choices other than the United States,” she said. “But the main reason for choosing the United States over the other opportunities was always job prospects.”
Now that those opportunities are paused, she said she expects prospective students to look elsewhere.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement also recently announced that international students must take at least part of their classes in-person in the fall or they won’t be allowed to stay in the U.S. This announcement, coupled with the orders concerning the visas, has left international students with uncertainty and feelings of being unwelcome in the country, said Jingjing Fan, the external affairs director of UT Austin’s Graduate Student Assembly.
“They feel an extreme uncertainty about the future. They’re not in a position where they can complain, because they’re afraid of retaliation,” Fan said. “As far as for future international students, I think this definitely dissuades a lot of potential students from coming to the U.S. to study.”
In her own department, which is about 60% international, she said, has benefited greatly from her professors who came from abroad.
López de la Osa Escribano, at the Center of U.S. and Mexican Law, still has three years left on his visa and has been applying for a greencard in the meantime. However, not everyone’s plan is as certain now, he said. H-1B visas carry dual intent, meaning that individuals can hold this visa while seeking a green card — providing a path to working in the U.S. while undergoing the often lengthy process of obtaining permanent residence. Without it, some international scholars have to bide their time before being able to work in the country.
“The ban on new H-1B visas is definitely making it very difficult for students to imagine what their future might be,” Fan said. “A lot of them come here with the intention of spending the rest of their life here and setting down roots.”