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Wait For Visas Leaves Foreign-Born Louisville Grads In Limbo

Mahsa Badami
Mahsa Badami

Using her iPhone, Mahsa Badami is able to see and speak to her family members, who live about 7,000 miles away.

The 30-year-old is one of the newest graduates in Computer Science at the University of Louisville’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering. Badami wants to be at the forefront of creating technologies that help connect people across the world.

“I knew that I want to help people, I knew that I want to bring people together," says Badami. "Bring more peace and love and make more people to understand each other better. But I also loved computer science and computer engineering and all of these stuffs. I just needed to find a connection how to do that.”

And with her sunny disposition, she did find a way. Badami is heading to California this summer to work as a data scientist at Apple. But she’s still not sure whether her time at Apple will be just a temporary job, or the start of a long career.

Badami is from Iran, and in order to stay in the United States she needs a special visa for high-skilled workers. These visas are in short supply, and Badami likely isn’t the only student at U of L who will need one. More than 80 percent of students enrolled in the Speed School’s graduate program are foreign-born.

“We have from India, China, Tunisia, Egypt," says Adel Elmaghraby, chair of the Speed School. "We have in the past from Russia -- we have less now. One is going to Mercedes-Benz USA to work on the self-driving car imaging. One is going to Google."

But in order for these students to take these jobs in the U.S., they need H-1B visas. The H-1B program allows companies to hire the foreign-born in high-skilled areas when American workers can’t be found. And this year is the fifth consecutive year that the cap for those visas has been met -- within five days. The visa recipients are chosen by lottery, and most of the 85,000 visas end up going to workers from India. And most of those jobs are in tech.

“Some of these large corporations have offices across the world,” says Elmaghraby. “But the society effect is that if they cannot hire here the people they want, they replace them in other offices in Europe, the Middle East, Asia. And I think that is a net loss for the U.S. economy.”

The Trump Effect

It could get even harder in the future to snag one of these visas. The Trump administration has already done away with expedited processing of H-1B visas and has indicated further reforms may be coming. Trump, and others, says the program needs cleaning up.

In mid-April, during a speech at a Wisconsin factory — prior to signing the "Buy American and Hire American" executive order — Trump said the system was being abused.
“Right now, widespread abuse in our immigration system is allowing American workers of all backgrounds to be replaced by workers brought in from other countries to fill the same job for sometimes less pay. This will stop.” 
Many believe the program needs to be improved, but that doesn't mean they want it to go away completely. They argue that people eligible for these visas — many of whom have gone to college in the U.S. — should be encouraged to stay in the country and contribute to innovation here.

Because most of the H-1B visas go to people working in the tech sector, many of the program’s beneficiaries end up working in Silicon Valley. A lot of graduates are probably not sticking around in Louisville for a job.

“Local companies aren’t utilizing them as much as some other cities and other areas of the country,” says Bryan Warren, director of Louisville Metro’s Office of Globalization. “We rank 84th of the top 100 metros for the use of H-1B’s and green cards for bringing in skilled talent from other countries."

Louisville’s foreign-born population is close to 7 percent, and Mayor Greg Fischer has said immigrants are key to the city’s population growth and economic development. Warren says he’s not sure how the visa cap will affect that in the short-term.

“But as companies are thinking of growing and having limitations on the workforce options, you know, are always going to be a factor,” he says.

For now, Mahsa Badami is in limbo. She wants to stay in the U.S. and work.

“I love this country,” she says. “I love all of these technologies and companies and it’s my dream to go and work for these companies.”

But she didn’t win the lottery for an H-1B visa that will allow her to stay in the country long-term. For now, she’s staying on a temporary visa.  

“Let’s see and wait,” Badami says.

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.

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