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Lottery Immigration System Forces Marymount Grad to Bid U.S. Goodbye

This week, a Marymount University graduate working in tech is packing up and moving to Dublin, Ireland.

He didn’t expect — or want — to leave his home on the border of Arlington and Falls Church this way.

Hansel D’Souza, 25, is an Indian national who was born and raised in Kuwait who now works for a tech company. He has been in Virginia since 2014, when he arrived on an F1 student visa to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology at Marymount. There, he dove into theater, student affairs and campus ministry.

“I was everywhere at the same time, wearing lots of hats,” he said. “People asked me, ‘Is there any job you don’t do?”

He programmed backstage lighting and sounds for the campus theater club, the McLean Community Players and the Little Theatre of Alexandria. With the campus ministry group, he went to Louisa, Kentucky for a service project and returned as a camp counselor for a few summers, watching campers graduate high school and go to college.

His extracurricular resume may be impressive — but none of his positions or volunteer work mattered when it came to seeking an H1B visa to continue working in the U.S. in his specialized field, which selects 65,000 people a year through a lottery. Up to 20,000 additional people can get this visa if they’ve earned a master’s degree or higher.

“This is not a merit-based system,” said James Montana, an attorney at Steelyard LLC, an immigration-focused law firm in Arlington. “The question is, do you have a degree that is related to the proposed work in a specialty field? An individual can do nothing to increase his chances — other than get a master’s, which is an awfully expensive way to increase them.”

D’Souza said his frustration with the H1B process, which wrote about in a Medium post, is that it whittled him down to a number in a lottery.

“Seven years of hard work, putting myself out there, making this place my home, building relationships, just came down to a lottery process,” he said. “I know I’m not the only one. I know a handful of other people going through it — and there are thousands of others across the country in similar situations every year.”

Indians in the U.S. face particular hurdles. In recent years, members of the diaspora living in the United States have protested a 150-year backlog in green cards, caused by a policy capping the number of Indians who can come to the U.S., and a coronavirus-induced excess of green cards that could go to waste despite this backlog.

Many Indian immigrants advocate for the cap to be lifted and for the immigration process to consider their technical skills instead.

As for D’Souza, he says he considered getting a master’s degree to increase his chances of staying. But after four years of tuition, and room and board, a master’s represented a financial lift he said he couldn’t justify, especially since he saw people advance in his field without one.

“Unfortunately, the world has gotten to a point where people are doing more degrees to check boxes on resume, and I didn’t want to do that,” he said.

It is too late for D’Souza, who departs tomorrow night (Wednesday), but he said he wants to elevate the voices of “international students and working professionals just like me.” He wants the Americans he knows to understand how complex immigrating to the U.S. is, as well.

“Immigration needs to change,” he said. “I’m hoping more people will realize it’s not all rose-colored glasses.”

After graduating, D’Souza applied for Optional Practical Training, a program that allows students with F1 visas to extend their stay for one year to work with an employer in their chosen field. He worked for a local nonprofit company with which he interned as a student. Since his degree is in STEM, the U.S. government extended his OPT for two years.

During that time, as D’Souza wrote on Medium, he immersed himself in American culture.

I learned about American history and culture through my undergraduate classes. I embraced the various traditions, holidays, and social customs. I remember my first Fourth of July, I spent the day at a cookout and vividly recall being mesmerized by the beautiful fireworks display. I remember my first Thanksgiving, my first hike at a National Park, first s’more around a warm campfire, first baseball game, and buying my first car. My time here has provided me with some of my best memories, shared with friends whom I now consider to be family. They showed me what being an American means; to be kind, loving, generous, and compassionate; to serve your community, lift others up, be a model citizen and a caring family member.

I volunteered extensively in my community, from working behind the scenes running stage lights and sound for community theaters, to serving as a camp counselor in the Appalachian region every summer. I was also a distinguished and recognized student leader in college, constantly working to enrich campus life.

My desire to be an American, my contributions to the country and my qualifications and achievements mean nothing as the culmination of my hard work over the last 7 years was settled merely by the luck of the draw. Do I not deserve the chance to achieve the American Dream? My American Dream? Maybe it is time to wake up and realize it was just a dream after all.

“Seven years of hard work, putting myself out there, making this place my home, building relationships, just came down to a lottery process,” D’Souza told ARLnow. “I know I’m not the only one. I know a handful of other people going through it — and there are thousands of others across the country in similar situations every year.”

In order to keep working here, however, D’Souza needed an H1B visa. That means his employer has to enter his name into a lottery (for $10), and if he is chosen, submit a visa application. The 65,000-person cap he faced has remained constant, despite an increasing demand for H1B visas. In the last decade, Montana says the program has been “oversubscribed every year.”

The immigration attorney compares working with companies needing H1Bs filed to filing tax returns. The peak season is in the spring and the work is repetitive, procedurally complex and expensive. For both the company and the employee, there is a human cost as well.

“We mostly work with tech startups and smaller employers to do H1B applications,” Montana said. “They find it frustrating and nerve-wracking to file these petitions because they have individual employees in mind who are not cookie cutter. They’re trying to plan their corporate futures, and the individuals are trying to figure out if they can stay in country. It’s nerve-wracking in both areas.”

Montana says for many years, the lottery ticket was the full application, instead of the simple $10 filing fee. While the new system makes applying an easier feat for smaller companies, it also likely contributes to a flood in entrants, making the chances of getting a visa with the existing cap slimmer. The attorney said any reform would need to consider why these caps are in place at all.

“I think the U.S. should decide whether having tech workers is a good in itself or a limited indulgence,” he said. “If it’s a good in itself, then there should be no cap. If it’s something we want to limit, we should be clear about why we’re doing so… I think that it would be a better program if we ourselves had a better understanding of why we’re doing it.”

In D’Souza’s case, Montana said there is “a bitter P.S.”

“Because of the way our system was designed, if this guy had won an H1B, he would’ve faced many more years of waiting — just because he’s from India and because we have country caps,” he said. “There’s a whole class of Indians, and some Chinese folks, who have their H1B visas extended again and again before becoming eligible for a green card… He didn’t get it, but if he had, he would be starting a very long journey to get a green card.”

There is some progress being made by those who would like to reform the H1B system. Upon taking office the Biden administration proposed legislation — the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 — that would “attempt to clear the employment-based visa backlog, eliminate per-country visa caps for green cards, codify work authorization for the spouses of H-1B visa holders, incentivize higher wages for H-1B workers so as not to displace U.S. workers and encourage ways to improve the employment verification process,” according to the the Society for Human Resource Management.

In the meantime, would-be citizens like D’Souza — with U.S. educations and steady jobs — are being forced to leave the country.

D’Souza, who has a job at a larger tech company that has helped facilitate his relocation to Dublin, said the process may be easier for him in Ireland. From what he has read, if he lives there for five years, he can apply for citizenship.

“Anecdotally, I know European countries in general may not have not an easier immigration process, but it is a much more welcoming process based on merit,” he said.

He knows not everyone is lucky to keep their job during an international move. Without his new job, he said he may have had to go back to India and start the job process all over again.

“I’m definitely very grateful for the experience that America has given me, for the life it has given me,” he said. “I’ve truly made friends who are quite literally family to me, and made best of memories with me. America gave me more than I could ever ask for. It sucks that it had to come down to this lottery process — to chance, I guess.”

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