Rajkamal Rao

Testing times for foreign students in US

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on July 20, 2018

Play by the book For young Indian students, the way to proceed is to not violate any rules   -  janniswerner

The Trump administration has started to enforce laws that have been in the books for over 60 years but were never enforced

In 2015, there were 1.13 million foreigners studying in the US, a record, having grown more than 50 per cent from 2010, which was 50 per cent higher than from 2005.

Foreign students — nearly half of them from China and India alone — have been flocking to the land of opportunity for nearly 15 years now.

For newly wealthy families in India, sending children abroad — even when paying outrageously high tuition and living bills — was a matter of social prestige and future financial prosperity. Meanwhile, American colleges and universities craved for Indian graduate students, turning higher education into a $35-billion export machine.

Under Presidents Bush and Obama, the US government blessed it all. The Department of State, which handles visa applications at consulates and the Department of Homeland Security, which monitors compliance with immigration laws once students arrive in the US, both kowtowed to the higher education industry. Even when noticing deviations from the law, they merely looked the other way.

But under Trump, the government has been quietly enforcing laws already on the books for over 60 years. The reaction among students, families and lawyers - all of whom had become accustomed to extremely generous treatment from previous governments - is now nothing short of visceral hatred of the current administration.

As tens of thousands of new students gather with families and friends all over India before departing to the US in the next several weeks, it is critical to note what these “new” rules are.

Most students arrive in the US on an F-1 visa. Under the Bush and Obama regimes, students routinely violated terms of their visas. The most common infraction was working illegally off campus, for cash, in establishments owned by diaspora Indian business people, such as gas stations and restaurants, secure in the knowledge that the students would never be reported.

Other violations included not taking the required course load each semester — presumably to earn extra cash by illegally working and pushing back the graduation deadline — and, upon graduation, working on a practical training visa in a field not consistent with their study.

Unlawful presence

The Trump administration has begun severely clamping down on these violations. In June, it issued a stern policy memo which said that these would amount to a condition known as “unlawful presence”, a dreaded term with harsh consequences.

Effective August 8, a student who has engaged in such infractions for more than 180 days could be deemed to have been unlawfully present and can receive a Notice to Appear (NTA), the first step in deportation proceedings.

If a judge agrees, the penalty could be that the student is forbidden from returning to the US for a period from three to 10 years.

The strange thing here is that the student may not even be aware of the violation and could still be punished.

Suppose that a student, having studied mechanical engineering, finds a job on the optional practical training visa as a software engineer in the healthcare industry. At the end of 12 months, the student applies for a 24-month extension of this visa under the so-called OPT STEM extension benefit.

The government could then find that the student unlawfully worked in a field different from his Master’s degree and send him an NTA to kick-start deportation proceedings.

Body shopping

As the US government has tightened its grip on H-1B visas, it is not uncommon for recruitment ads to specify that jobs are open only to US citizens and green card holders.

But the one industry that has continued to hire foreign graduates easily, often without regard to their merit, is the third-party body-shopping sector.

Often run by diaspora Indians, these companies recruit Indian students on practical training visas and place them at client organisations at remarkable spreads.

A student may get paid a salary of $30/hour but the end-client may be billed $100/hour, the difference distributed between the greedy body shopping firm and another vendor. This model has led to numerous complaints of employee abuse and unfair labour practices.

In an April update, the Trump administration said that it no longer permits foreign students to work for third party placement companies on practical training visas, so-called consultants: “The “personnel” who may provide and supervise the training experience may not, however, be employees or contractors of the employer’s clients or customers.”

For Trump, who ran on a “Buy American Hire American” theme, these policies are simply promises kept. For every job he “saves” for Americans, he gets to boast that his policies to “Make America Great Again” are working. And as though to show causality between his policies and economics, unemployment rates among Americans are now at 40-year lows.

America is still the best place in the world to study, train and settle down, if that is what young Indian students want. Because there are plenty of great jobs still to be had if students are the best and brightest. But the way to proceed is to play everything by the book and not violate any rules. The costs are too high and it is simply not worth it.

The writer is Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC, Texas.

Published on July 20, 2018

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