He came from Bulgaria to study at an American university 13 years ago. He received a master’s degree, followed by a doctorate.
J.B., who prefers not to be identified by his real name, told VOA that life in the U.S. has been going great. He has been working as a visiting professor for a U.S. college.
“I’m happy to be working with my alma mater. I love my job. I love my students and the department I work in,” he said.
J.B. has been allowed to work under a student visa, and his university has offered longer-term employment if he can get a work visa. But he is afraid his petition will not be approved.
J.B.’s fears are well-founded, according to three immigration attorneys who told VOA they are seeing cases where Trump administration initiatives are curbing legal immigration on multiple fronts.
“Nobody knows what’s going on. The officer’s confused. The applicant is confused. The lawyer doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s just a mess. It’s a huge mess. It’s dysfunction on a national scale is how I would explain it,” said immigration lawyer Shabnam Lotfi.
More specifically, J.B.’s lawyer, Jennifer Minear, said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has started denying petitions for people hoping to change status from an F-1 student visa to an H-1B work visa, if they have accumulated more than 12 months of what USCIS calls practical training during their degree program.
According to a USCIS official who spoke confidentially to VOA, the agency has been reviewing a number of policies and regulatory changes to carry out the president’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order.
But people like J.B., who followed regulations and immigration law, find themselves in a complex situation.
After completing his studies in sociology and economics, he applied for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows international students with F-1 visas to work full time in the U.S. for up to one year in the field related to their studies after graduation. As a student, J.B. worked under Curricular Practical Training (CPT).
Working legally in his field under CPT and OPT has left J.B. with more than 12 months of practical training, which would be fine under current immigration guidelines. His lawyer, however, worries that new procedures are being designed that will make previously approvable petitions and applications suddenly not approvable.
While there has been no announcement, Minear said USCIS has begun denying change-of-status requests for F-1 students who have worked more than 12 months.
“So essentially, USCIS is telling someone whose status they approved that they were wrong to approve that status. And as a result, the person is now out of status and must leave the U.S. before commencing work that no one will disagree he is qualified to do and that meets the requirements for H-1B visa status. It’s pretty upside down,” she said.
A USCIS spokesperson speaking confidentially said, “If the student has received one year or more of full-time CPT, then he/she is not eligible for post-completion OPT. However, valid work authorization must have been in place, and any other applicable regulations/policies must have been followed, for any CPT or OPT time.”
While the Trump administration backed legislation that would have cut legal immigration, the measure failed in the U.S. Congress. Meanwhile, officials have been able to use administrative guidance to change the way immigration officials handle cases and petitions.
The administration is still trying to tighten asylum rules.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently ruled that victims of domestic violence may not be eligible for asylum. USCIS later expanded that ruling to include victims of gang violence — reasons cited by many immigrants fleeing bloodshed in Central America.
Minear said there is a clear directive from this administration to make sure that every application is scrutinized with an eye toward denying it.
“There’s nothing wrong with looking for fraud and making sure that it’s not there, but we do need to apply the law as it exists to approve applications and petitions that are meritorious, and this administration is not about that at all,” she added.
According to a Washington Post analysis of State Department data, the number of people visiting the country has dropped 12 percent in President Donald Trump’s first two years in office.
Yemen, Syria, Iran, Libya and Somalia are among the countries most affected, due to the travel ban. The paper reported an 81 percent drop in visitors and immigrants from those countries by the end of fiscal year 2017.
The administration has also announced plans to take away work permits from those with H-4 visas, which are allocated for the spouses of H-1B workers.
In 2015, the Obama administration allowed H-4s to work. About 91,000 of these visa holders, many of whom are as skilled as their spouses, took the opportunity.
USCIS has yet to reach a final decision about H-4 work permits.
VOA verified J.B.’s identity, as well as the college where he is employed. According to their wishes, their identities will remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing J.B.’s chances of getting an H-1B visa. Failure to get one means he would have to leave the country.
He may be asked to leave anyway, if USCIS determines he has violated his F-1 status. In that event, USCIS cannot change his status to a work visa while he is in the U.S.
“If he can’t be approved for a change of status from within the U.S., he’d have to get the petition itself approved, depart the U.S., apply for the H-1B visa stamp and re-enter in order to activate the new H-1B status and begin work,” Minear said.
One college official told VOA that a refusal to allow J.B. back in the U.S. could affect students and other professors, as the workload would have to be “spread” among the teachers. The class could even be canceled.
“We hired him because he was the most qualified candidate,” the official said in a phone interview.
Minear said they are expecting to hear from immigration officials in the next two weeks.
“I have my life here — my job, my dog, savings and my house. This is my home,” J.B. said.