Foreign students, workers face uncertainty in face of COVID-19

By Julia Mericle  – Reporter, Pittsburgh Business Times

Mar 23, 2020, 3:02pm EDT

Stresses are running high at universities and workplaces across the city in response to public health threats, financial troubles and canceled events in response to COVID-19, but they may be particularly high among foreign students and workers in the region.  

Earlier this month, the United States suspended all routine visa services in most countries due to the global pandemic. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put forth a statement that the organization would “temporarily adjust its enforcement posture” to be more flexible as travel becomes harder.

Pittsburgh has thousands of international students attending its universities like University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Many employees in in-demand technology fields like robotics and software engineering across the city are here on H-1B visas. 

“The pandemic has an impact on virtually every visa category,” Ellen Freeman, of Ellen Freeman Immigration Law Group, said.  

As college and university campuses across the region shutter buildings and ask students to move out of dorms, international students are left wondering where to go.  

Typically, students who come to the U.S. for higher education are required to be physically present at their schools to maintain their student status. If they returned to live in their home countries, under normal circumstances, they would have to reapply again in five months, Freeman said.  

Freeman said the government is starting to make adjustments to these requirements, allowing students who are resuming their studies online to retain their student status and students who don’t have the financial means to remain in the U.S. to return to their home countries.  

However, this takes on another level of uncertainty for students who are fearful or unable to return to a home country with travel restrictions or a more severe outbreak of COVID-19, Freeman said.  

Issues are also arising around the future opportunities for foreign students graduating this semester, who normally would have the ability to stay in the U.S. for one full year to work.  

“It’s unclear whether we will be able to fill all of our internship positions this year with all of our foreign students gone and a lot of them in STEM disciplines,” Freeman said.  

Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council expressed the same concern about in-demand tech jobs, but also noted that hiring for both jobs and internships will likely dip due to financial stresses on local companies.  

“People who are foreign born and have gone to our local schools, they are at risk…particularly the ones who are getting ready to graduate, if their offers will remain intact,” Russo said.  

That impact on international students and interns, a vital part of the city’s talent pipeline, will be felt throughout the business community, in synch with the impact on foreign born people already working in the city’s tech ecosystem.  

Employees working in Pittsburgh with H-1B visas, or visas that allow U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations, face a list of regulatory compliances.  

Freeman said workers with H-1B visas are typically required to work in the metropolitan area specified on the petition and visa. As offices closed their doors and asked employees to work remotely, employers questioned whether they each had to provide H-1B visa holders with specific notices for them to post in their homes, a notion that Freeman called “ridiculous.”  

Freeman said the department of labor regulations that concern these issues is old and not designed for a situation like this global pandemic. She said the regulations in place only allow H-1B visa workers to be placed outside the location specified in the petition for up to 30 days, a timeline looking more and more unlikely for employees to return to offices in Pittsburgh.  

That means that employers would have to file amended petitions for each H-1B visa employee, a process that is expensive and time consuming. Freeman said that during a time when companies are looking to limit expenses across the board, she worries some companies may simply choose not to do so, leaving these international workers in a difficult position.  

“All of a sudden you can see the traffic of emails from immigration lawyers that the companies registering employees really don’t want to sponsor them anymore because the business is going down so quickly,” Freeman said.  

As with students, these workers face tough decisions when it comes to if they can even return to their home countries safely.  

“A lot of foreign nationals are stuck in limbo here, because American consulates abroad are closed pretty much everywhere,” Freeman said. “…The immigration services remain completely silent as if it’s not happening.”  

And Pittsburgh students, employees and companies are faced with these challenges as a looming April 1 deadline for the next round of H-1B visa petitions quickly approaches.  

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