Almee Christian is a recent graduate of California State University, Long Beach, looking for a permanent job and an H-1B visa. All photos by Rachel Livinal.
On Aug. 26, Almee Christian sat down for her first interview with Amazon. She had prepared for this for years. Two years ago, she had moved to the United States from India to obtain a master’s degree in computer science. In July, she and her friends spent four hours a day in the library learning how to do “lead code” so she could pass a separate round of code to get to the interview. She wanted the job so she could stay in the U.S., but she needed to be picked. First, for this job, and then for a visa that would help her stay longer.
“You have three years to get picked. If you don’t get picked, then you have to return,” Christian said. “You have basically established a complete life over here or wherever you are in the States. And then, if you are not lucky, [you] just go back.”
Christian’s two-hour-long interview for a software development engineer position at Amazon resulted in rejection. That was one of about 20 interviews she has done, out of the over 2,000 job applications she’s submitted. And yet, she still hasn’t gotten a real job.
Christian, 25, graduated from Cal State Long Beach in the fall. Over 22% of students in computer science or engineering at CSULB are international students. Since Christian is an international student, she has a visa that allows her to reside here as long as she is enrolled in higher education. Now that she’s not enrolled, she’s been trying to get another visa, a H-1B, but obtaining one has been harder than she thought it would be.
Students who wish to stay in the U.S. for a short period after graduating apply for Optical Practical Training, or OPT, which partners itself with their F-1 visa while they try to get a job in their field of study. OPT allows students 90 days from the start date given to them by the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services to get a job in their field of study. Once students get a job, their employer can sponsor them to obtain an H-1B visa, which allows them to work for an extended period.
However, an employer applying on the employee’s behalf does not mean they automatically get a visa. Due to the overwhelming amount of applicants every year, the USCIS created a “lottery system” with a cap of acceptances, and according to the USCIS, the cap has been the same for the last ten years. In the last five years, the amount of applicants has increased, making the likelihood of being picked over 6% less than what it used to be for the fiscal year of 2017. That’s over 100,000 more applicants.
The USCIS declined a request for an interview.
A few weeks ago, Christian started working with Source Mantra, an agency which, as she described, is a company that hires employees who want H-1B visas as “volunteers.” The agency then enters them into the lottery and places them into a real job through their contract, but takes a portion of their paycheck in return.
This option is present for all fields. Xochitl Lopez, the assistant director for the Office of International Students and Scholars Services at CSULB, said anything counts: an unpaid or paid internship, contract work, even volunteering — as long as a person works at least 21 hours a week.
Some people think that because there are so many ways to get a “job,” students should have no problem finding one.
“I think [students] find that there’s a lot of good opportunities in the sense again, that they can choose different things: short-term gigs, if they cannot find a full-time job opportunity, or some of them do a part-time internship, and then they’re getting paid in another [job], or they’re doing different things,” Lopez said. “So I don’t see that being really a huge issue for them.”
Graduate students also receive an extra large cap of 20,000 more applications accepted. But challenges remain. Akshata Bhagavath, 24, is a soon-to-be graduate of the master’s program of electrical engineering at Cal State Long Beach. She thinks the luck needed to obtain the visa makes her work feel useless.
“H-1B visas are purely dependent on luck and we get three chances to enter into the lottery… our future depends on this luck factor,” Bhagavath said. “In my opinion, I don’t really like this concept because even if I work hard at my job, there’s no guarantee I’ll get to stay.”
Even if Christian could get a job outside of the agency, the economy hasn’t been the best for her field of study. According to an article by CNBC, tech companies have “announced 102,391 cuts so far in 2023.”
Christian has been hearing this trend, and she knows it’s because of the way things have been since the pandemic eased.
“During COVID, when everyone was at home, the usage of these applications and websites like Google, Amazon… they skyrocketed,” Christian said. “And they had so much work, they didn’t have enough people. So they over-hired during that time. Now, they don’t need that many people.”
When looking even closer at companies, big tech companies have better chances of sponsoring visas. According to data from the USCIS, for the fiscal year of 2022, large tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Meta, and Apple made up 8% of all approved petitions. Christian was rejected from one of those companies in August.
“I need a job,” Christian said. “I need to pay back my student loans. And so there’s a lot of stress in my head right now. But I’m trying to keep a positive attitude towards all [of] that… My plan is to develop as many skills as I can, which will be helpful in landing me a job, whenever, you know… whenever the jobs open.”