Associated Press: “US colleges court foreign entrepreneurs who need visas”

by Joseph McKeown

Summer can be a difficult time for H-1B applicants. For those lucky ones who were selected in the lottery, they are nevertheless nervously awaiting the results of their H-1B petition. Those who weren’t selected in the H-1B lottery are most likely busy scrambling to come up with alternatives to possibly allow them to work in the US. As Liz has pointed out, it is frustrating for both foreign nationals and immigration practitioners since the H-1B is the perfect fit for so many people, and the only thing stopping them is that they were not selected in the random lottery.

But there is finally some positive news for certain rejected H-1B applicants. Certain universities in the US are now stepping up to provide solutions to the unreliability of the H-1B lottery process. Since employees of universities—or workers who provide services to universities—are exempt from the H-1B cap and thus can apply for an H-1B at any time and are not subject to the random lottery, schools are creating “global entrepreneur in residence" programs to allow entrepreneurial foreign nationals who qualify for an H-1B to work part-time on campus, often as mentors, while they develop their businesses.  

"This movement came about because of challenges that student visa holders were beginning to face when they had completed a program," Bill Stock, a Philadelphia attorney and the current president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), tells the AP. "There really aren't a lot of other visas that would allow someone to work temporarily."

One such school to offer this program is University of Massachusetts. Created as part of a 2014 Jobs Bill, the program, called the “Global Entrepreneur in Residence Pilot Program,” aims to “attract and retain more qualified entrepreneurs and their growing companies within Massachusetts” by providing “valuable, relevant part-time work opportunities which will initiate a cap-exempt H-1B visa application process.” The end goal for this program is to encourage and allow new high skill jobs to develop in Massachusetts. To be eligible, candidates must be a start-up entrepreneur in a leadership position (CEO, co-founder, or similar position) within an early-stage venture, have a master’s degree or above in a STEM or related business field, and the candidate’s start-up venture must be headquartered in Massachusetts and able to affiliate with a venture center within UMass Boston or UMass Lowell. Since it started in 2014, the AP reports that the UMass program has helped twenty graduates obtain H-1B visas, and their businesses have created 260 jobs, according to the school.

Critics accuse the universities of exploiting a legal loophole in filing these H-1B petitions, since Congress created the exemption partly to help colleges hire researchers. The AP reports that in a February letter to US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa called the practice a "backhanded attempt" to skirt federal rules and a "seemingly unlawful" interpretation of the law.

College officials say they are operating within the law and they’re only addressing the problems created by the H-1B lottery system. As more international students come to US schools—and more schools recruit international students—many of these students who want to stay in the country are instead forced to leave the US due to limited H-1Bs. "Massachusetts says goodbye to over 1,000 graduate students who otherwise want to stay and start a company," William Brah, who leads the global entrepreneur program at the UMass Boston campus, tells the AP. "I mean, it's stupid. You couldn't come up with a more flawed immigration system if you tried."

Along with UMass, smaller entrepreneur programs have recently formed at the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and Alaska Pacific University, which accept a combined six graduates per year. Babson College is now taking applications for up to ten entrepreneurs, and the City University of New York is looking for eighty business owners from around the world for their program. "We wanted to try to find some way that would make it possible for an entrepreneur to come to the country, without us having to pay them to do it," Andy Holtz, chief of the program, tells the AP.

At Babson, master’s graduate and entrepreneur Abhinav Sureka and his company's two co-founders—both international students—are considering applying for the college's new program. They've raised $73,000 for their company, and are working on plans to produce a high-tech portable tea brewer. "What if we don't get a visa?" Sureka tells the AP. "We can't continue work in the US, and the amount of time we have spent on this project is all wasted."