Diploma in Hand, But Visa in Limbo

Seniors are waiting to hear if they’ve been hired for lucrative jobs on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, but international students are waiting to hear if they’ll even be allowed to hold jobs in the country.

Harvard’s late graduation date—and an unusually high volume of visa applications—could put some seniors’ and recent graduates’ jobs in jeopardy.

And with immigration reform efforts stalled on Capitol Hill, relief may be a long time coming.

Some international students in the Class of 2006 were unable to apply for the H-1B visas required to seek employment in the United States because they did not receive the necessary proof of graduation until after the visa quota was filled.

Previously, the annual quota had not filled up until long after Harvard’s June Commencement ceremonies—students in the class of 2005 faced a deadline of Aug. 10.

But last year, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency that adjudicates visa petitions, announced that the quota was filled on May 26—the same day finals period ended. That left some graduating seniors without long-term employment permits.

The Woodbridge Society of International Students at Harvard says it will press administrators to address the matter. “This will have far-reaching effects on the international student body at Harvard,” according to Woodbridge spokeswoman Ritambhara Kumar ’09.

Harvard International Office Director Sharon Ladd said administrators are trying to make sure students will not face the same problem this year.

“What we’re working towards is not being caught out again this year, because it’s fair to say most people were when the cap was met last year,” Ladd said.

Federal immigration officials can issue H1-B visas to foreigners “who will be employed temporarily in a specialty occupation,” according to the USCIS website. An H1-B holder can remain in the country for six years. But the number of such visas issued annually is currently capped at 65,000.

Harvard students who fail to obtain an H-1B visa can still work in the U.S. for up to 12 months under a program called Optional Practical Training (OPT). But students staying in the U.S. under that program can only seek jobs connected to their field of study.

That’s not the only drawback of OPT. While students with a year-long extension could conceivably re-apply for H-1B status, they’d still have to stop working for several months. H-1B visas take effect at the beginning of the federal fiscal year, Oct. 1, so Class of ’06 students who gained OPT status immediately after graduation would be left without a visa from June 2007 until October.

Even worse for foreign students, summer jobs held during college count toward the 12-month OPT allowance. For example, Elisa M. Segovia ’06 of El Salvador worked during the summer before her senior year—cutting down the number of months she could work under the OPT program after graduation.

“I called my company and told them my situation, and my company was pretty great and said that when my OPT expires, we’ll send you to El Salvador to work for five or six months until I can apply for my H-1B,” said Segovia.

A bill sponsored by Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, would provide aid to students who find themselves in Segovia’s position. The bill would increase the annual number of H-1B visas to 115,000 and would double the length of OPT eligibility to 24 months. But according to the Library of Congress, no major action has been taken on this measure—or its companion House bill—since June.

The current 65,000-visa cap on H-1Bs is reached at a different point each year, so Class of ’07 students have no way of knowing whether they’ll have the required documents in time to apply.

Siddhartha Sinha ’07 of Calcutta, India is concerned about applying in time for the H-1B, but hasn’t let it affect his job search. “I’m assuming I will get the visa, but if I don’t, the thinking is that I’ll get a job in an international office,” said Sinha, who is looking for a job in finance.

Segovia, meanwhile, is working for Orion Consultants in New York City, but her long-term status is uncertain.

“Right now,” she said, “I have no idea what’s going to happen and I don’t think anybody else does.”