Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.

If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Immigration Limbo

A complex visa process and weak U.S. job market leave foreign scientists wondering whether all their hard work will result in a job

by Linda Wang
July 8, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 27

Credit: Edna Lugtu
Briones (left) with his Ph.D. adviser, Huw M. L. Davies, after receiving his doctorate in chemistry from Emory University.
Credit: Edna Lugtu
Briones (left) with his Ph.D. adviser, Huw M. L. Davies, after receiving his doctorate in chemistry from Emory University.


Immigration Limbo

For foreign scientists who want to work in the U.S., navigating the State Department’s visa process to obtain permanent residency through a green card is a rite of passage they hope will lead to a better standard of living. But it’s a passage frequently filled with twists, turns, detours, and even dead ends.

In today’s tough job market, even if the visa process proceeds smoothly, foreign scientists may not land the jobs of their dreams—or any job for that matter.

Brendan Delaney, an immigration lawyer at Leavy, Frank & Delaney, in Bethesda, Md., says economic pressures are having a discouraging effect on foreign scientists. “While I continue to see scientists navigating the green card process, in the last couple of years, we’ve seen more clients who, even if they have been approved for U.S. permanent resident status, have taken a position back at home,” he says.

Debate is heating up both within Congress and among members of the general public over whether the U.S. should provide more opportunities for foreign scientists to stay. “If you’re putting money into someone’s career training, to simply then allow some other location to get the fruits of their labor, is that a road you want to go down?” Delaney asks. Others are concerned that by letting more foreign scientists stay, competition will intensify for jobs.

One thing is for certain: The U.S. visa process is complicated. Foreign scientists who come to the U.S. essentially start off with a crash course in legal jargon as they try to figure out how the acronyms F-1, OPT, J-1, H-1B, EB-1, and EB-2, just to name a few, will affect them.

Then they discover the limitations of the benefits that their visas confer. Many foreign postdocs, for example, do not qualify for the majority of training grants and fellowships in the U.S., particularly from government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, which require U.S. citizenship or permanent residency status.

Yet many of the top research universities want postdocs to provide their own funding, notes John Frederick Briones, a chemistry postdoc at Texas A&M University who is from the Philippines. That requirement limited his options for postdoctoral positions to those professors who had enough funding to support him. Briones says he was a top candidate for a postdoc position at an Ivy League university, but ultimately didn’t get the offer because he didn’t have his own funding. Having limited access to grants and fellowships can translate into fewer awards that he can list on his curriculum vitae, Briones says. “How can you polish your CV if you don’t have a lot of opportunities to do that?”

Credit: Yefei Zhang
Foudazi conducts research at Case Western Reserve University.
Credit: Yefei Zhang
Foudazi conducts research at Case Western Reserve University.

Attending international conferences can also be complicated. “Any country that I go to, I have to apply for a reentry visa to return to the U.S.,” says Reza Foudazi, a postdoc in the department of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, who is from Iran. “If I’m lucky, I will get the clearance within three or four days. If I’m not, I have to stay there and wait for my visa to come. If I’m very unlucky, I might even be rejected for the visa.” These barriers can limit opportunities for networking and international collaborations, he says.

Credit: Courtesy of Pius Adelani
Pius Adelani (right) of the University of Notre Dame, with his wife and son.
Credit: Courtesy of Pius Adelani
Pius Adelani (right) of the University of Notre Dame, with his wife and son.

And going home to visit? Forget it. Pius O. Adelani, a postdoc in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, who is from Nigeria, has not returned home since he arrived in the U.S. in 2007 to start a Ph.D. program. He knew there was a chance he could be denied a reentry visa, which would have meant that he’d have to terminate his Ph.D. training. “I didn’t want to take that risk,” he says. Now that he’s completed his Ph.D., he is hoping to visit his father and siblings in Nigeria soon.

Credit: Courtesy of Sara Pistolesi
Sara Pistolesi
Credit: Courtesy of Sara Pistolesi
Sara Pistolesi

Visa issues can continue to plague a foreign scientist in the job market, as bioanalytical chemist Sara Pistolesi has found. Pistolesi, who came to the U.S. from Italy in 2009 for a postdoctoral fellowship at NIH, received a job offer from a large scientific company in 2012. But because she was on a J-1 exchange visitor visa, which required her to return to her home country for two years after her postdoc ended, she needed to obtain a waiver from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security before she could accept the position. The process would take several months, she told the company. It wasn’t willing to wait, so it rescinded the offer. “The job was perfect,” she laments. “Really, really perfect.”

Scientists from countries like India and China can face even greater visa hurdles, especially when it comes to sponsoring themselves for special green cards that are given to those with exceptional abilities who can demonstrate that their employment in the U.S. would greatly benefit the country.

Yu Wang, a biochemistry postdoc at NIH who is from China, says the number of Chinese scientists who self-petition for these types of green cards every year far exceeds the annual cap that the U.S. sets for their country, leading to a significant backlog. That’s particularly true for the national interest waiver green card, which has a lower qualification bar than the extraordinary ability green card but a longer wait time. If Wangwere to apply for a national interest waiver, the wait would be approximately five years, he says. It would take just a few months to get an extraordinary ability green card, but to do so Wang would need to show many more publications and international prizes as well as other proof of exceptional abilities.

Because so many scientists from China and India training in the U.S., their wait for a reentry visa when they travel outside of the U.S. can be much longer than it is for scientists from other countries. When Kinkini Roy, a postdoc in polymer science and engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, returned to India to visit her family near the end of her Ph.D. work at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, she could not return to the U.S. for four weeks while she underwent background checks for her reentry visa. Fortunately, she was working on her dissertation at the time and could do it remotely, and her Ph.D. adviser was understanding.

All these issues can create a lot of anxiety. Wang says when he’s at work at NIH, he’s completely focused on his research. But after he drives the 20 minutes to the apartment he shares with his wife and two kids, he has to confront the uncertainties of his visa and employment situation.

“Sometimes I wake up very early in the morning and I can’t go back to sleep,” Wang says. “It’s the whole family, not only you, finding a position somewhere. You have to consider your wife, if she can find a position, and your kids, if they’re happy or not.” With all the uncertainties, he feels worried and unsettled, which makes it difficult for him and his wife to plan their future.

Despite the worries, many researchers want to stay in the U.S. Adelani puts it this way: “The issue is, if I go back to Nigeria, what am I going back to?” Because of the lack of resources in Nigeria, he says he wouldn’t be able to do the research he’s doing now, and that would be a big setback for him. “I love research,” he says. “I love going into the lab and discovering something new.”

Still, the complicated visa process and the desire to be closer to family do draw some foreign scientists home.

Diary Of An Immigrant’s Journey

Organic chemist Uzma Zakai, who is of Pakistani descent, has waited many years to become a U.S. permanent resident. She was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, where she studied at British and American international elementary and middle schools. She then completed high school at the American International School in Salzburg, Austria. In 1999, she came to the U.S. to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Lenoir-Rhyne College (now Lenoir-Rhyne University) in Hickory, N.C. That step marked the first in her 10-year journey to become a U.S. permanent resident.

>> If you are having trouble viewing the interactive timeline, click here

Matt Wenham, who came to the U.S. to do a postdoc at NIH and build a career in science policy, is opting to return to Australia at the end of this year. But it wasn’t an easy decision.

Credit: Courtesy of Kosh Neupane
Kosh Neupane, Tufts University
Credit: Courtesy of Kosh Neupane
Kosh Neupane, Tufts University

“There’s a lot more going on in science policy in the U.S. than in Australia,” says Wenham, who is currently an associate director at the Institute on Science for Global Policy, in Washington, D.C. “But if I decided that I wanted to leave the job I’m in at the moment, that means I lose my immigration status, so I can’t leave this job unless I’ve got something else to go to, and that other job has to be one that would sponsor a visa.” Employers who want to sponsor a visa for a foreign worker need to prove to the U.S. Department of Labor that they aren’t displacing a qualified U.S. citizen to fill the position.

Kosh Neupane, a chemistry postdoc at Tufts University, in Boston, who is from Nepal, also plans to return home sometime in the future. One of his biggest motivators is his obligation to his family. “My parents sacrificed for my education, and I should not forget them,” he says. In addition, he and his wife want their daughters to get to know their relatives. “If I stay here, my kids will not know Nepal, and they will not recognize any relatives,” he says.

Despite the hurdles, many in the chemical sciences have managed to obtain a green card. Uzma Zakai, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Teaching Fellow at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., who will begin a postdoc at Iowa State University later this month, says she can’t describe the joy and freedom she felt when she received her green card in October 2009, 10 years after she arrived in the U.S. from Saudi Arabia. “For the first time, I had my life in my hands,” she says. “I could apply for workshops and fellowships that I could not apply for previously.”

But a green card doesn’t necessarily make it easier to find a job, especially in this tough economy, as Chaya Pooput has discovered. “I was able to apply to more places and get more interviews, but I haven’t found a permanent job yet,” says Pooput, who came to the U.S. from France in 2001 and received his green card in November 2012.

When asked whether he believes his hard work has paid off, he responds: “I’ve been asking myself that question a lot.” But he only dwells on it for a second before giving a much more confident response. “Since I’ve invested so much in my green card, I’m not going to give up now.”

Whatever path foreign scientists ultimately take, many believe that the journey has been worth it. “At the end of the day, I’m getting something out of this because I got my Ph.D. and the experience,” Briones says. “For that, I couldn’t be more thankful.”



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Eric (July 8, 2013 6:01 PM)
leaving this country might be a better option
Eddie B. (July 10, 2013 1:24 AM)
I seriously doubt that foreign postdocs have to find their own funding. For most of them its US citizens paying their salary through taxes. This article wreaks of entitlement; foreigners taking postdoc positions in the US are supposed to return to their home country not stay and take jobs away from US citizens. They are NOT entitled to positions in the private sector. The main reason foreign postdocs are able to take positions in the first place is because postdoc pay is at levels of extortion. Most US citizens will wisely change careers after getting a Ph.D. or most likely not pursue a Ph.D. in science in the first place. Meanwhile postdoc positions must be filled so the federal government fills the positions with foreign talent who don't mind being exploited for the chance of a career in the US (which is never in the postdoc contract anyway). Another way for foreigners to get a job in the US is through getting a college degree from a US university. With the current policy possibly stapling a green card to every college degree earned by a foreign student parents of college-bound students can expect fewer seats available to US citizens. Moreover, greedy colleges smelling the scent of cold hard cash from rich foreign students will increase tuition across the board and get it from them paid in full. Colleges have tuition rates for in-state and out of state residents; why not have another rate for out of country residents? Reduced seats and higher tuition trends for US citizens will put college degrees out of reach for many US citizens. And for those US citizens who dare to try, what about those high interest rates on student loans? That's called usury.
It's ironic how the US tax payers don't realize that the tax they pay goes to importing foreign talent to take jobs away from their sons and daughters. Its called insourcing and its unconscionable. For any foreign scientists reading this blog I'm sorry that you were tricked into thinking that you are entitled to a private sector job after your postdoc in the US. Just remember that you are in the US for not more than 5 years to gain expertise to bring back to your mother country for its advancement. If you in fact are the best and brightest from your country you should be able to do just that. Immigration lawyers who facilitate foreigners taking US jobs from US citizens aught to be glad that foreign lawyers are not standing behind them waiting to take a law position at half the salary US lawyers make.
Contrary to political correctness this op/ed comment is NOT anti-foreigner but pro-American.
Do Hyun Lee (July 19, 2013 12:44 PM)
I agree with Eddie. Most (if not all) postdoc should be returned to home-country to transfer the skills they gained here in the US. That's how the country will develop. US government should encourage that with the collaboration with those country where they are from. Like one of the postdoc says he consider his family value than money or research, other should learn similar things as well instead of hiding here and waiting for getting Green card.
Adam (August 26, 2013 3:24 PM)
I disagree Eddie and Do - the U.S. Government should provide a fast-track to permanent residency or citizenship for individuals who have graduated from American universities with science or engineering degrees. This will encourage immigration on the part of those who can provide real value to our society. The demand for engineers and scientists is so incredibly high right now, American companies NEED access to the pool of candidates out there who have the skills to fill these openings but can't even get an interview because of their visa status.
Sushmita (February 17, 2014 7:03 AM)
Don't most people around the world immigrate to US for a better life? How is it bad if it happens to be a talented scientist or an engineer? It is not like scientists and engineers are illegally crossing over the borders, they are being 'brought' into this country because of what that they can contribute to the US society. Foreign born scientists have been key to US economy for decades. If you look closely into most of the scientific discoveries and innovations made in the US, there are most foreign born scientists behind those discoveries than Americans. If the government is so worried about foreigners taking jobs away from the US citizens, then they should focus on encouraging more Americans to study science and engineering. Many Americans choose business careers over science careers because not only scientists are compensated inadequately but also the training takes so long. Science and innovation has to keep moving, so what is wrong if the talent is imported?

As far as tax money goes, many foreign scientists who work in the US (even on a temporary visa status) have to pay state, city, federal, social security and medicare taxes on every paycheck they earn. Many of them do return to their home countries, so aren't they paying a share of the social security and medicare even though they will not reap the benefits of it in future?

By limiting government funding to Americans, the US government is actually ensuring that most Americans don't have to compete for those funding with foreigners and is supporting Americans to continue their careers in science. I agree, maybe it is better for many postdocs to return to their home countries after their training. But for those who are highly competitive and accomplished, they should at least have a chance at being a productive member of the American society. After all, America is the land of opportunity so let the best scientist win.

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment