Presidential proclamation puts additional strain on US optics and photonics workforce

01 September 2020
By Kevin Probasco
Presidential Proclamation_Visa

On 22 June, the White House issued a Proclamation that immediately suspends the H-1B visa program and certain categories of the J-1 visa program, a move that is certain to negatively impact the optics and photonics community in the United States. It will put further strain on the workforce, making it impossible for companies and universities to bring talent from outside the country to fill open positions, and harder for international students graduating from US programs to stay and begin their careers.

The Proclamation, effective immediately and through the end of 2020, will not affect current visa holders or renewal of those visas for those residing in the US, but will prevent new applications from being processed. Anyone outside the US whose H-1B visa is not currently valid will not be allowed to renew their visa while outside the US and will not be allowed back into the country as long as this suspension stands. Notably, this suspension includes cap-exempt applications, which means institutions of higher education, nonprofit, and government research organizations will be unable to hire people needing an H-1B visa to work legally in the US. The Proclamation does not apply to Optional Practical Training (OPT), nor the STEM OPT extension - two programs that allow undergraduate and graduate students with F-1 status to work in their field of study.

Rashmi Shah, an immigration lawyer and partner at Bashyam Shah, a corporate immigration practice that focuses on technology and life sciences, believes the changes are endangering the United States' competitive advantage and are hindering its innovation. "Highly skilled immigrants have helped make our economy one of the leading in the world by filling critical growth roles at American businesses, and founding successful businesses of their own. My clients are frustrated with the challenges and restrictions being put in place. They have a "welcome" sign up for global talent, but they need the Administration to understand the economy and the monetary value these highly skilled workers bring to the company and the broader community."

Noting that the current CEOs of Google, Microsoft, and IBM all came through programs like F-1 and H-1 visas, Nishant Mohan, CTO of Photonicare, sees the Proclamation and the broader US immigration posture troubling for both individuals and business alike. "The success of a technology-focused business is highly dependent on the ability to attract talent. Despite well-highlighted diversity issues, tech companies have tried to recruit from a broader talent pool, including students of foreign nationalities. We are seeing a reduction in international students coming to the United States, as well as an increasing number of those graduating deciding not to stay in the country. These decreases will naturally reduce the talent pool from which we can attract talent and decrease the diversity of ideas and experiences. Once we stop being the place that unconditionally attracts the very best in their fields, we take away from the vigor of scientific and technical pursuits—the essence of modern innovation and growth. This will certainly have implications for businesses in our industry and our society in general."

Mohan knows the difficulties and lengthy processes of immigration well. He came to the US from India in 2004 to attend Boston University for his PhD studies, and after more than 15 years in the country, he is still waiting for permanent resident status. Having spent his entire professional career in the US, he is currently on an H1 visa as he awaits his green card—a process that included submitting over 500 pages of evidence and letters of support from leaders in the optics and photonics community. While the Proclamation won't directly affect his status, he feels for the many individuals and families who have been impacted: "I am extremely grateful to the institutions, companies, and individuals who have supported me in the process. I am fully aware there are many in much more urgent need who don't have such support."

Kevin Probasco is the SPIE Manager of Technical & Community Communications.

SPIE supports policies that allow for the international mobility of scientists. Sharing knowledge and talent through collaboration has been core to scientific breakthroughs for over a century and will continue to be vital to innovation across the sciences. Countries instituting policies that prevent, restrict, or discourage the movement of researchers put themselves at a disadvantage while also hindering scientific progress.

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