We’re getting used to the crackdown on undocumented immigrants in Trump’s America, but we’re reaching the point now where even highly-qualified, well-educated, and completely legal international professionals have no other choice but to go back home.
I had a chance to speak with 27-year-old Maya* from Mumbai, India, who obtained her F-1 visa and came to the United States in 2014. This visa allows international students to pursue a program of study in the United States.
Maya was more than qualified for the Master of Public Health program at the University of Georgia: she’d already obtained her MD in 2013.
She graduated with the MPH degree in 2016. Post-graduation, she worked as a Health Educator for a UGA Extension program until the grant supporting it ran out in September 2016. With very little prior notice, Maya had lost her job, and thus, her key to staying in the United States under her visa program.
She began a new job as a writer for Fast Copy News Service in Athens. While she enjoys writing and has been published in Engineering Georgia, UGA Research, Georgia Health News, the Athens Banner-Herald, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she is only able to stay if her job is in her specialized fields of study. She needed a new job and a work visa, and fast, as her Optional Practical Training — a period of one year during which students who have completed or have been pursuing their degrees for at least nine months can work with a student visa — ends on June 12, 2017.
UGA’s Office of International Education encouraged her to apply to jobs within higher education in January 2017. She had already been applying to fellowships and jobs nationwide since fall 2015, her penultimate semester. “I nearly got a position in Seattle in 2016, but they were uncomfortable with hiring someone on OPT, that they would have to sponsor for a work visa,” she explained to me.
Finally, after an intense interviewing process, UGA’s Terry College of Business offered her a position as a research professional on April 13, 2017. She remembers her interviewers at Terry saying that they were “really impressed” with her and even planning to give her the “max amount of starting salary.”
She signed the hiring paperwork in person on April 17, but just three days later, received devastating news: the University of Georgia had rescinded her job offer after hiring her.
The official reason they gave her was, “‘Due to your current visa status as Student: Post-Completion OPT expiring on June 12, 2017.’ Which is actually the legal status to be while looking for a job,” Maya said.
Once a foreign national obtains a job offer, the process for H-1B sponsorship begins. The H1-B allows U.S. employers to petition for a work visa for international professionals with a bachelor’s degree or higher to work for them in a “specialized” field, usually science, engineering, or information technology.
She is educated, qualified, and completely legal — so why would an institution of higher learning take back her job offer?
On March 3rd, the Trump administration quietly announced a change to the H-1B program as part of their “Hire American” campaign. The rule halted the premium processing time for the work visa to 8-9 months from the original time of 15 days. It even applies to cap-exempt institutions like universities and nonprofit organizations.
The new rule came into effect April 3, just 10 days before Maya was hired by UGA’s Terry College. Maya said she didn’t even know about the rule change until after she had lost the job offer. When she contacted the Office of International Education at UGA via email for the guidance they’re meant to offer, she received overly casual, “unhelpful” responses, sometimes with only one line of text.
Ultimately, UGA revoked Maya’s job offer because they weren’t willing to wait for her work visa to come in.
Frustrated, she asked why nobody had made her aware of the rule change before she applied for jobs. The Office of International Education told her that “the government does not want the international students to know because they do not want to cause a mass panic.”
“[They] are supposed to let us know that rules have changed,” Maya said, “because if the rules have changed such that its 8 to 9 months for a visa, no employer is going to hire you. Why don’t you just let us know that there is no point staying here once your degree is completed? Why would I waste my time staying here and spending money looking for a job that I will never get?”
Instead of receiving any advice, she was asked what options she had back in India. Maya told them that a hospital where she had once worked was willing to create a job for her. “It’s a position in management in a hospital, which is I’ve always wanted to do,” she said, “and there’s no employment discrimination there, which is great.” The hospital isn’t in her home state, though, and she would still rather stay in the U.S. because she, like most who come to study or work here, feels that she can “do better here.”
That’s not the only reason why Maya considers the U.S. a great place to live and work. “I’ve been lucky to have met amazing people who are now my friends,” she said.
Her friends have always been generous and helpful, never hesitating to help her move apartments or drive her to get groceries. She’s grateful, too, for the opportunities to publish her work, “be it in academia or journalism,” and for the “great assignments” she’s been offered. The diversity in the U.S. sticks out to her as making her “more aware and empathetic” of different cultures, languages, and even hair types — one of the “little things” she says she’ll miss about the U.S. is going to hairdressers who don’t complain about her thick, curly hair. She’s also become more financially independent here and has established a great credit score. Unfortunately, her credit history is another thing that she will have to leave behind when she returns to India.
Maya went to the International Education Office for help in finding a way to stay in the U.S., but they told her in an insensitive, “matter-of-fact way” to take the hospital job in India rather than pursue any options to stay. “[They] were literally encouraging me to go back home,” she said.
The only way she can remain in the U.S. now is to enroll in another program of study, but she already holds an MD and an MPH. That means she only has a Ph.D. left to pursue. Most deadlines to apply for a Ph.D. program had already passed by the time she considered applying, so even if she had been accepted, the funding would have already run out. When she met with faculty at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism, they encouraged her to apply to their Ph.D. program but denied her application 10 days after she did so.
“At this point in my life, whatever I do, the answer is no,” Maya said, “I just don’t know if it’s worth it.
And this is what I’ve noticed about Georgia: if someone is in trouble, it’s almost like they want to distance themselves from that person.”
She has ample experience to compare with Georgia: at 17, she moved to China for a year, then studied medicine on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia for five years. “I haven’t experienced [discrimination] in the other countries I’ve lived in,” she said, “because mainly it was about whether you were the best for the job, but here, it’s insane. There are all these hoops that you have to jump through, and you don’t win in the end.”
That holds true in terms of subtle insensitivity as well. Maya has traveled all over the world and says she has never heard “as dumb questions” as she has in the southern U.S. For instance, she was once a bridesmaid in a wedding, and the mother of another bridesmaid spoke about immigrants as a whole, right in front of her, characterizing them all as coming illegally to steal American jobs. On the same trip, the father told her at dinner, “‘I bet you’re really missing curry right now.’”
“[Immigrants] come here looking for a better life, not to ruin your life,” Maya said.
She is also frustrated by the way jobs are obtained in the U.S. She’s observed that they’re not offered to those with the best credentials, but to those with connections: “All through my time here at UGA, all my meaningful jobs were because I knew people, not because I was the best applicant, and I don’t know what that says about the system itself.”
She even noticed that system at work when she got her own full-time job with the Extension program: “I knew the job was coming to me — they all had already said that — but they had to put it up on the jobs page, so I’m sure they got a ton of applications, but they just chose me, even though I didn’t really apply. They knew me because I was a student assistant there during graduate school. It didn’t really sit right with me, but that’s how you get jobs. And I don’t know if that’s right.”
In spite of the discrimination and the “shady way the government works,” Maya truly admires the diversity and opportunity in the U.S. It’s hard to enjoy it, though, when you’re always worried about being legal or facing discrimination; those opportunities aren’t based on what you study or “what’s in your head,” she said, but on who you know.
“I wish I could actually say this to people leaving their countries for the U.S. because they think they will have a better life, and to students who are well-off in their countries: don’t do that, stay in your country, don’t come to the U.S. You aren’t going to be treated equally… Just don’t do it.
…It’s just really difficult when nobody gives you a chance, and all I wanted was a chance.”
*All names have been changed.