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IMMIGRATION STORY

Wojciech Ph.D. candidate

IMMIGRATION STORY

Wojciech Ph.D. candidate

“The first principle of green chemistry is: let’s talk about waste, let’s talk about waste prevention, and let’s come up with a way to quantify the amount of waste we are producing.” It’s a December evening in San Francisco, and Wojciech is giving a presentation to a group of scientists and early-stage investors with Impact.tech, which organizes talks to inspire people to start, work for and fund companies that are using technology entrepreneurship to solve problems.

A recent report by the Hatch Foundation shares what economists have understood for decades: that high-skilled immigrants working in the sciences and engineering, like Wojciech, are fundamental to driving innovation, technological adoption and productivity. Immigrants have started more than half (44 of 87) of America’s startups that are valued at $1 billion or more, and are key members of management or product development teams in over 70% (62 of 87) of these companies.

Wojciech is giving a seminar on clean chemicals, examining some of the innovative tech and startups working to reduce the U.S. chemical industry’s environmental impact. It is a subject he knows well. In his fifth year of studies at UC Berkeley, Wojciech’s research focuses on utilizing nanoparticles for electrochemical carbon dioxide reduction. Wojciech has almost completed a Ph.D. in chemistry, and in many ways he exemplifies former Senator Orrin Hatch’s vision for America.

“We can cultivate the most dynamic, talented, and educated workforce in the world while increasing economic opportunity for all Americans. In fact, we must do both. We must continue to attract overseas talent to sustain the very innovation that has made our nation the most prosperous in the world.” – Senator Orrin G. Hatch

Wojciech currently holds an F-1 visa, which enables him to live in the U.S. as long as he is enrolled as a full-time student. As he nears graduation from his Ph.D. program, he must consider the next steps for his immigration status. Like many international students who come to the U.S., he’s hoping to obtain an H-1B visa. It is reserved for those with specialized knowledge and education, and for many immigrants, it is a stepping stone to qualifying for a green card, and building a career and life in the United States. Each year, USCIS opens 85,000 such visas for applicants, reserving 20,000 for students pursuing advanced degrees. It is a competitive process, and has become all the more difficult over the past two years due to a noted uptick in H-1B visa petition denials, and increase in application processing times.

“It’s sad and confusing when nothing is guaranteed and you always have to live with these what-ifs.”

In 2017, President Trump signed a “Buy American, Hire American” directive to limit recruitment of foreign workers, particularly those with H-1B visas, in order to “protect American workers.” U.S. companies, especially those in the technology sector, heavily rely on the H-1B program to help with hiring skilled employees, and it has become a flashpoint in the immigration debate. Over the final three months of 2017, H-1B application denials increased by 41%. Meanwhile, Requests for Evidence (RFE), an intermediary step in the application process, nearly doubled over the same time period, adding to the slowdown in processing times and making it difficult for even the most highly educated scientists and engineers to work in the United States.

“The U.S. government sort of made a promise that documents would be processed in a certain amount of time. There are many livelihoods that depend on this promise,” says Wojciech. “We are by no means in a worse situation than people at the border, or people who are undocumented, but [amongst] our peers we’re definitely challenged. It’s sad and confusing when nothing is guaranteed and you always have to live with these what-ifs.” Wojciech’s fiancée, Pratima, is also in her final year of Ph.D. studies at UC Berkeley. As she approaches graduation, she will likely face the same uncertainties with regard to her status.

The two have been able to work with an immigration attorney in recent months, for which they feel fortunate. “We had a lot of questions. It’s kind of like taxes, do you suck it up and pay [for the legal guidance] yourself? Do you go to a friend who might know more?” says Pratima. “When we did talk to the lawyer, we were told that this year was the first year where not all H-1B petitions were processed until the end of the calendar year. [The attorney] said this could complicate our travels, and that she hopes the visa application cycle will reset this year, but who knows. Nobody knows.” The process of getting an H-1B visa, with the help of legal counsel, can cost an applicant upwards of $10,000. Wojciech recently accepted a position with a technology company in Silicon Valley, in part because they were able to connect him and Pratima with the immigration attorney, and will cover the H-1B application expenses.

“As I started my research, I realized that I really want to work on something that helps climate change.”

The prohibitive cost, and the lengthy delay that is now synonymous with the process acts as a barrier for thousands of H-1B visa applicants. It also makes joining a startup, or forming a new company, far more difficult. This is particularly incongruous in Silicon Valley, where 55% of tech startups valued at $1 billion or more were founded by immigrants. “The reason why I chose a large company is partly because I felt that, with my current immigration status, I could not afford being hired by a startup. I’ve always been driven to entrepreneurship, but small startups may not have enough money to pay for my H-1B, and they are often not registered with the federal government to provide OPT [Optional Practical Training]. I felt that it’s just too risky for me, so that’s been a real-life impact of my immigration situation.” For the time being, Wojciech won’t be able to continue his carbon sequestration research. But, he sees the value in working for a large and successful company, and looks forward to the experiences and opportunities he will have.

“[The company I’ll be working for] is in the semiconductor industry, so short term, I won’t be able to do anything with the clean chemical industry. When I started my research [on carbon sequestration] I realized that I really want to work on something that helps climate change. But there are many, many ways to help the planet and I’m excited to work on making semiconductors more energy-efficient. I believe that one can learn a lot from a big company that can be later used in entrepreneurship. Semiconductors consume a very large amount of energy, and I’m looking forward to participating in efforts to make them more efficient.”

The current average wait for H-1B application processing is five to seven months, a length of time that many businesses can’t afford when they are trying to hire a new employee. As the Hatch Report notes, the current U.S. immigration process was set in place long before the innovation and growth driving our economy today began. The numerical limits and qualifying characteristics for both green card (“immigrant”) and temporary worker (“nonimmigrant”) admissions to the United States were largely established by the Immigration Act of 1990, and the legal immigration system has not been significantly updated since then. Meanwhile, there are more than 7.5 million unfilled jobs in the United States. A recent study by the Society for Human Resources Management found that 83% of employers were having difficulty filling open positions, with 75% of those employers saying candidates did not have the necessary skills, like data science.

Thankfully, Wojciech has his job offer in hand a few months before he is set to graduate from UC Berkeley. He hopes he will receive his H-1B visa in a few years, but nothing is certain. “I’m not even guaranteed all three years of employment. Most likely I will have three years of legal employment, but with the current percentage of H-1B success, it’s totally possible that three years will not be enough time to get me an H-1B visa.”

“Our peers think that it’s obvious we should be given a chance to stay in the country because we’re well-educated, but it really doesn’t work this way."

For Wojciech and Pratima, the lack of concrete information has filtered into all areas of their lives. As they try to pick dates for their wedding, it’s been difficult to coordinate with their families in Poland and India. “Our lawyer has said that certain months are off the table, because it’s not guaranteed we’d be able to come back to the country,” says Pratima. Wojciech adds: “A lot of our peers think that it’s obvious we should be given a chance to stay in the country because we’re well-educated, but it really doesn’t work this way. People deserve to know what their own country is doing.”

Still, they are both quick to acknowledge that they are, without question, in a better situation than many immigrants. The United States already has some of the greatest talent on earth; the challenge now is keeping them here, as the Hatch Report concludes. That will require developing new immigration programs for startup founders who have immigrated to the U.S., graduates of U.S. universities, and high-skilled workers and their families, like Wojciech and Pratima. Congress also needs to raise the H-1B cap—which has been far too low for decades—and tie it to market demand to meet the needs of our modern economy.

Wojciech and Pratima remain optimistic about their future, but believe the government needs to address immigration reform in a broader sense. “Is this what makes America a more successful country? Both of our educations, at least at UC Berkeley, were funded by American taxpayers and citizens. So a lot of Americans, either through their taxes or their goodwill, decided to help our education. If the legislation is now, in different ways, trying to push us out of the country, is that the smartest policy? We need an immigration system that is transparent, and honest.”

“We need an immigration system that is transparent, and honest.”