If you have questions about international student visas, you’re not alone. With everything going on in the U.S. — COVID-19 to a new presidential administration — many people are confused about current immigration policy. We sat down with Jessie Feinstein, an immigration lawyer with 15 years of experience, to find out everything you need to know about the current state of international student visas and what to consider if you plan on working in the U.S. after graduation.
Here are the important takeaways:
Q: How has immigration and travel to the US by foreign nationals been affected by COVID?
A: The biggest change was the shutdown of the Department of State Consulate. That was an enormous disruption this year for all kinds of people. It impacted students because it became incredibly difficult to get a visa interview. There were exceptions for students, but my office has seen people in certain countries who have been waiting to get their visas since March or April 2020.
In previous times, there has also been a rule that international students could not take more than one online course every term. When the schools started going completely remote, there was a fear that international students would fall out of status because now they could no longer meet the regulations. Luckily, the government announced an exemption from this rule during the pandemic that allowed international students to take a fully-online course load if that’s how their university was handling classes. I expect this will be temporary — there’s a considerable emphasis on fraud prevention within the international student program.
Q: What immigration changes are anticipated under the new presidential administration?
A: As it relates to immigration benefits, we’re hoping to see a shift from enforcement-driven policies back to being benefits-driven. In the last four years, we’ve seen a lot of restriction, we’ve seen a lot of tightening and trying not to approve cases, rather than trying to approve cases, which is how it should be. So, hopefully, we’ll see that shift and immigration cases will be easier.
There’s a law that’s currently under review that will suggest that we start to put in place an end date for students, which would create the necessity of them leaving by a certain date or being subject to possible re-entry bars. International students are currently allowed to stay for as long as it takes them to finish their education, but this may change shortly.
Q: How can students best prepare to get the visas they need?
A: It’s important to do your own homework. Make sure that the universities that you’re applying to have really solid international student offices. There should be a designated student officer, and these people can be great resources to help students accumulate the information they need and the proper documentation. Make sure to maintain your full course load and not drop below the minimum requirements. Know the employment limitations of your visa — most international students aren’t allowed to work. I would also recommend that you start thinking about your post-graduation plans and preparing to apply for visas if you intend to stay in the country.
Q: What is the best way to get a working visa after graduation?
A: Most students in this position will be looking for an H-1B work visa, where a company sponsors them. Some companies will clearly state on advertisements that specific roles are not eligible for sponsorship, so that’s an easy way of ruling some positions and companies out. In many cases, students can go on forums or just search online and see if certain companies have sponsored H-1B visas in the past. Usually, it’s just a matter of putting feelers out to see if the company they’re interested in has sponsored people for working visas before.
Q: What kind of roles or skills are companies looking for to consider sponsorship?
A: To be eligible for the H-1B program, the job must require somebody with a bachelor’s degree. Even entry-level computer programmers may not qualify because you don’t necessarily need a college degree to do the job. People with business or marketing degrees may have a harder time getting approved, but roles in the STEM fields often qualify for these working visas. We also see a lot of lawyers, accountants, and various kinds of engineers that qualify.
Q: What kinds of financial considerations do international students need to take before studying in the U.S.?
A: International students are required to prove that they can pay for school on their own. Part of their application to the school is to show how they intend to pay for it. Universities may provide scholarships to international students, but that depends on the school. International students are not eligible for federal financial aid. In general, the visa fees are pretty nominal, so the primary financial consideration is proving you can pay for your living expenses and tuition.
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Jessie Feinstein is a principal in the Omaha, Nebraska, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. She focuses her practice on representing U.S. and multinational companies in employment-based immigration preparing nonimmigrant and immigrant petitions. A graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law, Jessica has been practicing immigration law for 15 years.