International graduate students face immigration struggles

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Aside from the normal stresses of graduating that include exams, papers and deadlines, Jenny Lo has to worry about whether or not she must leave the country to abide by immigration laws.

Lo is a mechanical engineering graduate student and an international student from Taiwan. Lo said international students have the added stress of learning and conforming to the country’s immigration laws for students.

“I’m set to graduate in May and I have a job lined up in July, but I can’t apply for my work visa until September, so between July and September I need some sort of valid identification,” Lo said. “If your visa is about to expire you may have to leave the country to go back home. It’s always a hassle to try to get back into the U.S. There’s always that period where you’re hanging in the air, and you’re not sure what to do, should you get your plane ticket yet, should you not, should you wait?” 

Lo has applied for Optional Practical Training status, which allows graduating international students 12 months in the U.S. to train and find jobs in their field, leading to a work visa. Students in science, technology, engineering or mathematics can apply for an additional 17 months.

Lo must apply for the status to legally stay from July to September, although her application may not even be looked at or approved by the time she can apply for a work visa.

“The waiting period is really long, so I probably won’t get the OPT in time and have to return to Taiwan,” Lo said. “Hopefully it is all set by the time I need to return, otherwise I won’t be able to come back on time.”

Teri Albrecht, International Student & Scholar Services director, said international graduate students, even with the training status, are not guaranteed security in the country.

“They really have to plan and have a job lined up, because they are required to be employed within the first 90 days on the start date or the immigration office could consider them out of status,” Albrecht said. “There are layers of uncertainty for these students.”

Albrecht said limitations on work opportunities and required authorizations of workplaces can restrict professional and research experience students can gain before graduating.

A group of Graduate Student Assembly members lobbied in Washington in April to authorize dual intent for the student visas and to lift work restrictions for students and their dependents. They also asked for an increase in the cap on H-1B visas, which are three-year work visas aimed at foreign students entering the workforce.