As squads from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, formerly the INS) raid local homes looking for illegal immigrants, and corporations scramble to ensure that their employees are in the clear with appropriate working papers, another set of potential immigrants is sidelined in the public debate. They are the thousands of foreign students, at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels, who are studying in our colleges and universities. According to Mark Rhoads, an immigration attorney with McCandlish Holton in Richmond, Virginia, these students “allow us to be the recipient of the world’s brain drain. We are getting the best and brightest students from around the world.”

But once the students complete their studies, they have only two choices: to depart to their home countries or, if they want to remain in the United States and work, to get a work visa. Rhoads and his colleague, Helen Konrad, speak on visa and work options in the United States for foreign graduates on Monday, November 6, at 4:30 p.m. at McCormick 101 at Princeton University.

Many of the students who come on the F1 student visa, says Rhodes, “come to study things like engineering, science, architecture, mathematics — areas that historically have been shortage areas in United States.” Many, he adds, want to stay here for at least some period, and his firm travels around the country and talks to student groups and employers who recruit on college campuses about visa options:

H-1B visa. This is the most common and readily available visa for professional-level positions. The requirements are straightforward. The position must be one that requires at least a bachelor’s degree, and the potential employee has to have a degree related to the position for which he is being hired. Although the process of obtaining an H-1B visa is not that difficult, says Rhoads, “many employers are skittish because they don’t know the option is available.” In addition, they may be concerned about cost (about $4,000) and what their obligations are (no different than a United States worker, says Rhoads, although forms must be amended if the person’s job changes).

“Many employers are very sophisticated with regard to immigration issues,” says Rhoads. “Some employers hire hundreds of foreign students. But small- to mid-sized firms are not as familiar with the process and tend to shy away. They may forego an ideal candidate because they are not familiar with the immigration process. We try to demystify that process.”

The problem with the H-1B visa, and it is a big one, is that the USCIS can issue only 85,000 a year. “Last year they ran out of that quota in two months,” says Rhoads. As a result, foreign students need to understand the timing required to ensure they file their application early enough to secure a slot.

The H-1B quota becomes available every October 1, at the beginning of the government’s fiscal year. Since applications are accepted up to 6 months in advance, the key is to apply as close to April 1 as possible. “This year I will be surprised if the quota lasts through the month of April,” said Rhoads. To apply, the students need to have a bachelor’s degree and an employer willing to sponsor them.

Students who don’t have their bachelor’s degree in time for the April deadline may have to get a temporary employment authorization, called Optional Practical Training (OPT), to bridge them to the next year’s quota. OPT gives F-1 students an opportunity to apply knowledge gained in the classroom to a practical work experience off campus.

Attorneys like Rhoads handle the paper work that employers must submit to the immigration service, describing the job and why it requires the particular degree, and showing that the individual has the degree for job. Once the paperwork is in, the USCIS takes four months to process it and issue an approval. Usually it takes the lawyers about a week to turn around once they get the paperwork from the business, but they can turn it around faster if necessary.

E visa. This visa is available when an individual from a country that has a treaty of trade and commerce with the United States invests in either purchasing or starting a business here. Such people can apply for visas for key managers and specialists from their country to work in the business. For example, if Toyota opens a factory in the United States, the firm can transfer its managerial and executive personnel on an E visa.

L visa. These are available to individuals who have worked for an overseas company for at least a year and are being hired by a United States branch or subsidiary of that company to work in the United States. This would allow a foreign graduate who didn’t make the quota for an H-1B visa to leave the country and work for a year, say with DaimlerChrysler, and then transfer back to the United States.

Rhoads grew up in Northern Virginia, where, he says, “my dad was a physician and my mom was a mom.” After he graduated from William and Mary in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in history, he taught history, social studies, and math at a private junior high school in Richmond for a year. Although he enjoyed teaching, he always had it in the back of his mind to go to law school, and the next year he started at the University of Richmond Law School.

His first work as an attorney was as a federal court litigator with a specialty in product liability and contract disputes between companies. Then he moved to immigration, which he says is “more fun than the contentious litigation I used to do.” He focuses exclusively on business and professional immigration and observes, “I get to deal with excellent employers and bright, motivated individuals.” Out of the 25 attorneys in his firm, five work exclusively in business immigration, with clients across the United States.

Rhoads’ most focused work with the thousands of professional clients that he serves each year comes early on, when his large staff prepares the paperwork and he and his colleagues deal with the legal issues.

“Each case is unique,” he says, “because we have to marry up the job with the degree, which is sometimes easy, and sometimes not.” Down the line, he provides corporations with continuing advice on other issues that arise, including wage requirements, posting requirements, and rules to follow when transferring an employee to a different job location or promoting an employee to a new position (if a person’s job is changed materially, the employer needs to file an amended application to ensure that the new job requires a degree and that the degree is related).

Although labor and anti-immigration groups are trying to limit immigration to the United States, Rhoads believes that these foreign graduates make an important contribution, filling jobs for which skills are relatively scarce among American workers.

Rhoads counters the typical argument from labor — that foreign workers are taking jobs away from domestic workers — with the fact that legal and filing fees for an employee amount to $4,000, and asks: “Why would any employer throw that money down the drain if he had ready and able United States workers?”

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