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Anxiety Around H-1B Visas Looms Large for Prospective MBA Applicants, Current Students, Recent Grads

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Do you have the H-1B heebie-jeebies? If so, you are not alone. MBA LiveWire threads have been filled with prospective international applicants questioning whether it makes sense to pursue a U.S. MBA given that potential changes to visa policy could make it less likely they’ll be able to obtain work in the States after graduation. Current students are desperate to know which U.S. employers are most likely to hire MBA grads who need the H-1B. And some current graduates, plum jobs in hand, still don’t know their fate in the H1-B lottery, which could determine whether they get to start at the Chicago office where they’ve been hired or may instead have to rearrange their plans.

Adding to the existing extreme uncertainty is the fact that no one knows which way things will go from here. Multiple legislation has been introduced to revise the H1-B visa process in any number of ways, some of which could, in fact, benefit MBAs. But other proposed changes could instead create even greater challenges or hardships for international students hoping to use business school as a means of propelling a future career stateside. Of course, President Donald Trump could also draft an executive order at any point, making altogether different changes to the ways in which the U.S. welcomes—or doesn’t welcome—highly-skilled immigrant labor. In his campaign he frequently went on record vowing to “Buy American and hire American” and threatening major immigration reform, including changes to H1-B protocol.

It’s enough to make your head spin. And because none of us here at Clear Admit have crystal balls either, we can’t promise to provide definitive answers regarding what the future may hold. But through this and a series of subsequent H-1B-focused articles in the coming days, we do plan to unpack some of the complexities of H-1B visa legislation as it stands today and as it could change over time. We’ll also hear from admissions directors and career services directors at leading business schools about what they are learning from their students’ experiences and how they are advising applicants, students, and grads to best prepare for the uncertainty.

Not only that, we’ll take the pulse of MBA recruiters to better understand how the uncertainty around H-1B visas may be impacting recruiting—drawing on data from the Graduate Management Admission Council, Transparent Career, and top recruiters themselves. Last but not least, we’ll hear from those most impacted—the prospective applicants, current students, and recent grads for whom a mere three characters—”H1B”—have thrown careful considerations of the MBA into chaos.

What the Heck is an H-1B?
For international applicants just beginning to think about business school—and for American citizens for whom it is not a concern—just understanding what the H-1B visa program is and why it exists seems like a logical place to start. The H-1B visa is an employment-based, non-immigrant visa category for temporary workers from other countries seeking employment in the United States. It applies to workers in specialty occupations—that is, roles that require employees to apply highly specialized knowledge and hold a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent or higher. According to the United States Department of Labor, “The intent of the H-1B provisions is to help employers who cannot otherwise obtain needed business skills and abilities from the U.S. workforce by authorizing the temporary employment of qualified individuals who are not otherwise authorized to work in the United States.”

The law as it stands establishes certain standards that are supposed to ensure that nonimmigrant workers are not taking jobs from U.S. workers who do meet the required skill levels of a given specialized occupation as well as to protect the H-1B nonimmigrant workers by assuring that they are paid a fair wage.

Every H-1B visa holder must be sponsored by his or her employer—indeed it is the employers who apply for the visas on workers’ behalfs—and currently 85,000 H1-B visas that would apply to MBAs are issued every year. Last year, a record-setting 236,000 applicants made a bid for the 85,000 slots, up from 172,500 in 2014. This means that international MBA students who had secured jobs with employers willing to sponsor them for the H1-B in 2016 had a 36 percent chance that they would get the visa they needed.

This year, the New York Times reported that “applications poured in by the truckload before the door slammed shut.” For the fifth consecutive year, the 85,000 cap was met within five days of April 3rd, when applications opened. During that period, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services  (USCIS), which oversees the program, announced that 199,000 applications were received, according to a CNN report. That’s down from last year’s record high, effective raising MBAs odds of success from 1 in 3 to 2 in 5.

CNN noted that USCIS preceded the start of the H-1B season with admonitions that it planned to take a “more targeted approach” in visiting the workplaces of H-1B petitioners, and the Justice Department, through a press release, cautioned employers petitioning for H-1B visas not to discriminate against American workers. These moves—designed to stem what many view as abuses of the visa policy by outsourcing firms—could ultimately benefit MBAs seeking the visas. Although there is also the risk that fewer employers will be willing to go the extra lengths required to sponsor those who need H1-B visas, which could instead hurt international MBAs. “In an atmosphere of uncertainty, I suppose it is not surprising that fewer petitions were filed this year,” Betsy Lawrence, the director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told CNN. 

Those who do get the H1-B can then work in the United States for a period of three years, with the opportunity to renew for subsequent extensions.

UP NEXT: What Happens If You Don’t Win the Lottery? Which Employers Sponsor MBAs Who Need H1-Bs?