As Covid-19 gathered pace in the US last month, Amy Zhao lost her accounting job and then her visa status when she learned that she did not get picked in the work visa lottery.
Resigned to what she saw as a streak of bad luck, Zhao planned to return home to China, but could not find any direct flights. Travel restrictions left her stuck in the US at the start of unprecedented uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.
“What surprised me was that I couldn’t find a flight back to China,” Zhao said, adding that the few flights available involved multiple flights. “There’s an outbreak in New York. A 50-hour trip involving multiple stops can put my health at risk.”
So she decided to stay and ride it out. After consulting immigration lawyers, Zhao applied to an English language programme at St John’s University – where she said she completed graduate school in 2019 – to maintain student visa status.
“I’m doing this only because I can’t return to China just yet,” Zhao said. “There are many opportunities in China, and I don’t want to miss them.”
Zhao, a Tianjin native, had been working in New York on optional practical training, the one-year extension to international student visas which allows foreign students to temporarily work in the US.
More than 16 million people in the US have filed for unemployment over the past three weeks. Amid massive lay-offs and a public health crisis, many international Chinese graduates like Zhao are facing the choice of returning to China or staying in the US. And the clock is ticking.
Their F-1 student visa status dictates that they cannot stay unemployed more than 90 days during their one-year extensions. Once the extension ends and if they do not have another visa application pending, they have to leave the country within 60 days.
Chinese students make up the largest international student population in the US, with nearly 370,000 students, including those on one-year extensions, for the academic year 2018-2019, according to the Institute of International Education.
Tsui Yee, a New York-based immigration lawyer, said that many international students are in the same situation as Zhao.
“Right now I am dealing with several employers who are agonising over whether or not to go ahead and file H-1B petitions even after being lucky enough to be selected in the random selection process,” Yee said.
“I also have a few clients who were about to file H-1B extensions, and now their employers might not even be able to file extensions because of the severe and sudden downturn in business.”
Rahul Choudaha, director of industry insights and research communications at Graduate Management Admission Council, an association of graduate business schools, said recent political and trade tensions between China and the United States had already led to a softening of Chinese student enrolment in US universities. Recent travel restrictions and economic turbulence as a result of Covid-19 have compounded those challenges.
“Accepted and current students face a new reality of uncertainty in obtaining visas and maintaining their status for academic or career pathways,” Choudaha said. “While the new reality poses challenges for students, prior crises of 9/11 and global financial recession shows that aspiration to study in the US is likely to rebound over time.”
Moving between countries is no easy task itself. But the pandemic has exacerbated the challenge as China has significantly reduced international flights.
Iffy Yang, a recent graduate who lives in San Jose, California, was also on her one-year extension. She quit her previous job just days before a statewide shelter-in-place order took place in the hope of landing another job soon.
“I was petrified,” Yang said. “The shelter-in-place has made job hunting so much more difficult.”
Most responses to her job applications have been such that the companies are holding off hiring due to the coronavirus epidemic. Increasingly, she has been considering returning to China.
“If I can’t find a new job in 90 days, I can’t maintain my status,” Yang said. “Staying in the US wasn’t my only option, anyway. I was 70 per cent sure I wanted to stay here. Now I’m 60 per cent sure I want to go back.”
The shelter-in-place order has also made moving logistics such as shipping belongings home difficult. On top of that, Yang has also found returning to China difficult thanks to the reduced number of flights.
“I feel like I’m stuck in the US in 2020, thanks to corona,” she said. “This current president, plus the grim H-1B prospects for Chinese students – all of these make me wonder what staying here is for.”
The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS), a national organisation representing postgraduates at US universities, said they urge federal agencies and Congress to grant a temporary extension of visa deadlines for optional practical training and H-1B applications during the crisis.
Fang Zhang, vice-president and chief operating officer of NAGPS, said they see a lot of very talented and inspired international graduates who could be future researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs and health care workers that are struggling to maintain their legal status “not because of any of their fault or mistake, but due to the vicissitude of seasons and the lack of responses from regulatory agencies”.
“What they ask is not a lot, they just need to have some more time,” he added.
I’d rather live with a good question than a bad answer.