When I first came to the United States from China, I packed my bags and left home with a one-way ticket to Portland, Ore. To make sure that I really had the chance to learn the language and blend in the American culture, my father sent in an application to Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, a city with 13,000 people — very few of them Chinese.
That small town was my first impression of this country. There was no racial diversity and not one building was taller than six stories. The only way not to act like a “weirdo,” was to force myself to talk to everyone with my broken English, even when I was uncomfortable. Luckily, this little town, despite its lack of diversity, had the kindest people.
I never felt discriminated or singled out when I was the only Chinese student there. They accepted me as one of them and taught me that “as long as I keep my own essence and work hard towards what I believe in, nothing is impossible.”
For the most part, that was true. I graduated at the top of my class, had two summer internships after graduating from EOU and I went to an MBA program at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
But as I got closer to finishing the MBA program, I had to get a job, otherwise I would have no choice but to return to China.
My friends in Oregon did not understand why getting a job was so stressful for me. While sometimes I would forget that I was an immigrant, there was an invisible wall that I couldn’t tear down despite my success — a visa to work anywhere in the US.
It was hard for my Oregon friends to understand that for international students, getting a job is not so simple after graduation. Applying for an H-1B visa program — which is how many international students qualify to work — is not an easy process that guarantees anyone a chance to work in the U.S. And unlike what political rhetoric might imply — it is not a program that companies use to find “cheap labor.”
There are companies who want to hire international students and are willing to sponsor them through the H-1B work visa.
But their willingness is not the last word — the U.S. has a limit for the highly demanded visa, which is given through a lottery system.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services accepted H-1B Petitions for fiscal year 2018 from April 3 to 7. The H-1B application cap of 85,000 was reached in four days.
Out of that limit, 6,800 visas are set aside for citizens of Singapore and Chile, as part of the free trade agreement between the United States and those countries.
Over 236,000 visa petitions were submitted before the lottery system was over, so only about 36 percent of the applicants were able to move forward with their H-1B applications.
After years of hard work to succeed in U.S. schools, it comes down to a random drawing.
“There is nothing you can do, really. It’s all about luck,” said Betty Chao, Oregon State University graduate. “It doesn’t matter if you have a good GPA or good lawyer or you have lots of money. It’s all up to the computer.”
Even after getting the H-1B, the stress isn’t over for many workers.
“I am always grateful for the company who is willing to take this risk for me and has the faith in me to enroll me into this visa program,”said Yao Mu, an employed marketing analyst in Renton on H-1B visa. “But sometimes it’s so stressful that I am afraid of making any mistakes. I am in this constant worry that I may be fired if I make a mistake or they will tell me they no longer want to sponsor my visa.”
While nothing about this system has changed for the next year, the concerns and uncertainties have been amplified by President Donald Trump’s administration, which has pledged to increase jobs for U.S. citizens. Last month, Trump signed orders that could lead to work visas being even more selective.
This issue is very important to the Seattle area, which is the third largest export market in the U.S. Seattle’s total export value in 2015 reached $67.23 billion.
One reason for that success, is the area’s diversity, said Kristi Heim, a Seattle based senior director at BGI Group, a biotech company from China.
“To reflect the diversity of the community is to harness the strengths of many kinds of people toward a common goal,” Heim said. “This is especially important for innovation. Everyone benefits by exposure to different cultures and new ways of thinking. It also makes teams more interesting and dynamic.”
Heim also argues that encouraging immigration benefits more than just businesses.
“Highly diverse communities are most successful when people have equal opportunities and a common sense of purpose. I think of places like Singapore, Sydney, Hong Kong, Silicon Valley and the Seattle region,” she said. “Because of their diversity and openness, these communities will be more robust, innovative and attractive to talented young people who can choose to live anywhere.”
Living in an open and inclusive community like Seattle is a privilege, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Instead, we should take advantage of the inclusiveness and understanding of the community to create a better sense of awareness. Additionally international students should know, the H-1B visa process is nothing to be afraid of. Everything has a degree of uncertainty. If you are an employer, please give a fair opportunity to the international student who has the qualities you seek. If you are an employee, have faith that someone will see your dedication and talent and will help you with what you deserve.