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June 18, 2014

Felipe Spinel, a Columbian graduate of Boston University, got a job with a Boston-based start-up tech company (Udi Edni/ Courtesy of CloudLock).

International students are enrolling in American colleges in huge numbers, boosting the U.S. economy with tuition dollars and diversifying classrooms. But many of those students don't end up staying and working. Critics say that's because the U.S. isn't handing out enough work visas, which sends these talented grads home. 

Growing up in Colombia, Felipe Spinel got a bachelor's degree and then worked for ten years in Bogota's struggling tech sector, saving enough money to study abroad. In 2010, Spinel was accepted into Boston University's two-year MBA program.

“This is the place where the new technologies are being born and where the things that will change and shape the future are happening right now, so that was a major point for making that decision,” said Spinel. 

After graduating and spending all of his savings, Spinel landed a job with a Boston-based technology company looking to expand into Latin America.

Spinel said that his managers wanted someone who could speak Spanish and Portuguese, so they paid immigration and lawyer fees in hopes that he'd be able to stay and work in Boston. But there was no guarantee that he'd get one of the coveted H-1B work visas.

"You are trying to get on with your day job, trying to do your thing, but at the same time wondering whether it is taking you somewhere, or whether you'll just have to come to a hard stop and go back,” Spinel said. “So it was stressful, to be honest, very stressful.”

Foreign-born students, like Spinel, are earning more and more United States degrees. But Congress caps the number of graduates who can stay and work in the U.S. Year after year, the applications far outpace the number of visas. Boston immigration lawyer Matthew Maiona described it as game of chance rather than merit.

"[It’s] almost like finding out your whole life you wanted to go to a certain college, you wanted a certain job, and then finding out you couldn't do it,” Maiona said. “And the reason you couldn't do it was not because you weren't qualified but just because you were randomly selected."

Maiona has been practicing immigration law in Boston for the past 18 years, and he believes today's immigration rules haven't kept up with the current workforce demands.

"We have a lottery to decide which of the most brilliant people in the world can stay, and it just seems crazy,” Maiona said. "What we're left with is shipping off all those bright minds to other countries."

Economists say that denying H-1B visas is actually costing U.S.-born technology workers jobs and stifling innovation. For the U.S. tech sector to grow and create jobs, they’ll need more talent, regardless of where it comes from. Critics, though, say the H-1B visa program pushes qualified American workers out of their jobs.

"At this point in time I don't think that adding to the H-1B visas is a healthy situation for the U.S. economy," said John Fugazzie, the founder of Neighbors Helping Neighbors USA, a national support and networking group.

Over a year ago, Fugazzie lost his management position at a national supermarket chain because it was downsizing. Since then, he's been helping other Americans find work. 

"While these wonderful students come here and learn at our universities, to add them to the job market doesn't seem to be fair to anyone, including them," said Fugazzie.  

While he admits that some international students may bring talent that isn't already here, he points to the tech sector's 2.7 percent unemployment rate, still high compared to before the recession.

"I believe we have quite a few people here in the United States who possess the same skill sets and they're not able to find jobs because there are not enough jobs for everybody to have," Fugazzie said.

Currently, the immigration law doesn't encourage foreign-born students to enter into the U.S. job market. In fact, applicants seeking student visas are required to indicate they'll go back home after they earn their degrees. 

“This is absolutely diametrically opposed to what we should be doing to attract the best talent in the world,” said Deborah Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools.

Stewart believes Congress should make it easier for highly skilled applicants to get visas to study and then to stay in the United States.

"We must take this action. Otherwise, given the huge competition from around the world, we'll no longer be able to compete," said Stewart.

Stewart noted the possibility that the United States could lose its standing as a global higher education leader, especially at a time when India and China are making massive investments in their colleges and universities.

Back in April, Felipe Spinel was among the 49 percent of applicants who were awarded a visa. He thinks that keeping more highly-skilled international workers in the U.S. could boost the local economy.

“If you think about the economy here in Massachusetts you have an incredible number of startups that are growing incredibly fast,” Spinel said. "Every single company that wants to have a global reach and wants to capture additional markets is benefited by incorporating international talent into the ranks of the company." 

At the federal level, the issue is still unresolved, but in Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick is pushing a measure that would allow international students who attend colleges and universities in Massachusetts to apply for residence if they plan to start a business in the state. If passed, it would be the first of its kind.

Earlier this week, On Campus looked at why American schools are attracting international students:

international, H-1B, global competitiveness

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