US colleges court foreign entrepreneurs who need visas

To help foreign students keep their companies in US, Babson and at least five other US schools are using a new approach that critics describe as exploiting a legal loophole.

By: PTI | Boston | Published: July 7, 2016 1:39 pm

He came to America on a student visa, earned a master’s degree from Babson College and is now starting a new business, but Abhinav Sureka worries that he’ll have to return to India. To stay, he needs an H-1B visa, a temporary work permit typically obtained through a lottery with lower odds of winning than a coin toss.

To help foreign students like Sureka beat those odds and keep their companies here, Babson and at least five other US schools are using a new approach that critics describe as exploiting a legal loophole.

The H-1B visa is the primary work permit for foreign nationals, reserved for employees with at least a bachelor’s degree who work in specialty occupations such as math or technology. Workers must be sponsored by an employer to enter an annual lottery for the 85,000 visas awarded by the US.

This year, 236,000 workers applied.

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But employees of universities or outside workers who provide services to universities are exempt from the cap and can obtain H-1B visas directly.

Using that exemption, schools are creating “global entrepreneur in residence” programs that let some graduates work part-time on campus, often as mentors, while they develop their businesses. That allows the graduates to say they’re providing a service to a US university, which can qualify them for the exemption and a smooth route to a visa.

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“This movement came about because of challenges that student visa holders were beginning to face when they had completed a programme,” said Bill Stock, a Philadelphia attorney and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“There really aren’t a lot of other visas that would allow someone to work temporarily.”

Congress created the exemption partly to help colleges hire researchers, prompting some critics to say that schools are now exploiting a loophole. In a February letter to the US immigration chief, Republican Sen Chuck Grassley of Iowa blasted the practice as a “backhanded attempt” to skirt federal rules. He called it a “seemingly unlawful” interpretation of the law.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has broadly opposed H-1B visas, saying they take jobs from American workers and should be banned.

College officials say they’re simply using flexibility in the law’s language to address a growing problem. As more international students come to US schools, many want to stay in the country to start their own businesses. But with few legal routes beyond the H-1B lottery, entrepreneurs are routinely forced to go home.

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