US colleges court foreign students, entrepreneurs– leading to permanent residency

BE2C2 Report — The City University of New York has started a new program aimed to draw 80 student entrepreneurs and startup business owners from around the world.

A similar program started in 2014 at the University of Massachusetts, has helped 20 graduates get entrepreneur visas — their businesses have created 260 jobs, the school says.

Smaller programs have recently formed at the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University, which accept a combined six foreign graduates per year — leading to startup visas upon graduation.

Babson College in Boston is now taking applications for up to 10 entrepreneurs.

Colleges say the new programs are good for their local economies, but they also can help schools with recruiting international students — a group that is charged full tuition.

At Babson, Sureka and his startup’s two co-founders — both international students — are considering applying for the college’s new program.

They’ve raised $73,000 for their company, “Teplo”, which plans to produce a high-tech portable tea brewer. When they graduated in May, it started a one-year timer before their student visas expire.

Sureka came to America on a student visa, earned a master’s degree from Babson and then started the new business with two other student visa holders – rather than seeking to convert them into H1-B visas by getting employed.

To help foreign students like Sureka get startup visa and beat the odds inherent in H1-B visa’s lottery, and keep their companies in USA, Babson and at least five other U.S. schools are using the new approach — critics describe it as exploiting a legal loophole.

The H-1B visa is the primary work permit for foreign nationals, reserved for employees with at least a bachelor’s degree who work in specialty occupations such as math or technology. Workers must be sponsored by an employer to enter an annual lottery for the 85,000 visas awarded to employers.

Of the 85,000 visas handed out annually, 20,000 are reserved for people with advanced degrees. But there’s no prioritization within the lottery system. That means many of the most highly educated workers could be turned away.

This year, 236,000 workers applied. According to a Wall Street Journal report, there are between 900,000 to a million H1-B visa holders. The percentage of tech workers (12 to 13 percent) is roughly 120,000. Rest are in different sectors.

The facts surrounding H-1Bs are shaded in gray. Three major issues in the debate are: A) Visas aren’t given to only the most highly trained workers; B) H-1Bs allow employers to import cheap labor, and C) Startups get the short end of the stick.

But employees of universities — or outside workers who provide services to universities — are exempt from the cap and can obtain H-1B visas directly.

Using that exemption, schools are creating “global entrepreneur in residence” programs that let some graduates work part-time on campus, often as mentors, while they develop their businesses. That allows the graduates to say they’re providing a service to a U.S. university, which can qualify them for the exemption and a smooth route to a visa.

“This movement came about because of challenges that student visa holders were beginning to face when they had completed a program,” said Bill Stock, a Philadelphia attorney and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “There really aren’t a lot of other visas that would allow someone to work temporarily.”

Congress created the exemption partly to help colleges hire researchers, prompting some critics to say that schools are now exploiting a loophole.

In a February letter to the U.S. immigration chief, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa blasted the practice as a “backhanded attempt” to skirt federal rules. He called it a “seemingly unlawful” interpretation of the law.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has broadly opposed H-1B visas, saying they take jobs from American workers and should be banned.

College officials say they’re simply using flexibility in the law’s language to address a growing problem. As more international students come to U.S. schools, many want to stay in the country to start their own businesses. But with few legal routes beyond the H-1B lottery, entrepreneurs are routinely forced to go home.

“Every year, we figure Massachusetts says goodbye to over 1,000 graduate students who otherwise want to stay and start a company,” said William Brah, who leads a program to help foreign entrepreneurs at the University of Massachusetts’ Boston campus. “I mean, it’s stupid. You couldn’t come up with a more flawed immigration system if you tried.”

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