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Visa laws restrict international labor

MU students seek better hours, higher pay and familiar community off-campus

By Jack Evans, News Editor and Olivia Lewis, For The Miami Student

When faced with sometimes inflexible or insufficient hours and comparatively low pay at on-campus jobs, many international students are left with a difficult decision to make: break the law and put your visa on the line, or continue to work at a job that may not deliver.

The F-1 visa is the standard academic visa provided to international university students, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website (USCIS). The visa tightly controls an international student's ability to seek employment outside of the university that the student attends.

The standard penalty for breaking the F-1 working regulations is to have your visa revoked by USCIS. Students may apply for reinstatement, but that process is not a sure bet. If they are denied, the student will often face deportation.

In regards to on-campus employment, there are a number of work obstacles that only international students face, such as restrictions outlined in Title 8 of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Code of Federal Regulations, said Molly Heidemann, assistant director of International Student and Scholar Services.

International students can't work for an organization other than the university that they attend unless they complete requirements for Curricular Practical Training (CPT), Optional Practical Training (OPT) or Severe Economic Hardship permits.

The criteria for these options are hard to meet. Economic hardship permits are often approved only for severe economic crisis or natural disaster in the student's home country. It takes about three months to be processed and if it's approved, international students are only granted authorization to work off-campus 20 hours a week for one academic year. To apply for OPT and CPT, the work has to be directly related to the student's major. There is also a $380 fee to apply for an economic hardship permit, said Heidemann.

2121 graduate and undergraduate international students attend Miami's Oxford campus, according to statistics from ISSS. A common stereotype at Miami is that of the rich Chinese international student with an expensive car. While some international students do come from wealth, just like with domestic families, the families of many international students give up a lot to send their kids to school here.

"I wouldn't say every Chinese student here doesn't care about money," said Johnny Liu, a recent Indiana University graduate and the owner of Tang Dynasty restaurant. "Some of them really need the money -- not every family is super rich."

Stringent exception guidelines, inflexible or insufficient hours and comparatively lower pay are factors that push international students to seek off-campus employment.

One of the most obvious benefits to working off-campus is increased pay, said one Chinese international student with off-campus employment, who was willing to speak on condition of anonymity.

The student said that at their place of work, employees can earn $100 or even up to $250 a day depending on the position. This level of pay is significantly higher than the standard $8.10 to $10 an hour offered by many Miami University entry-level positions.

A major boon to off-campus work for international students is the sense of comfort and familiarity they feel when working with alongside other students who share their culture and country of origin.

"From our culture and education in China, what all the Chinese people do in China is group up," said the student. "It gets even easier [and becomes] sort of common sense here. You're in America, you're in a unique place and nobody knows you. It's going to be easier if you can group up with your friends or if you are in a group."

They went on to talk about the social benefits of working off-campus and interacting with other international students on a regular basis.

"There are like 2000 Chinese students here, and I know like 1000 of them," said the student. "Last time I was at a [festival], I was like, 'I know all of these people.' That made me feel amazing, I have never known so many people and now I know everyone here. It feels very good."

While off-campus hourly employment can make up for some of the shortcomings of on-campus hourly employment, most international students are looking for a higher level of employment.

"On campus you can't get any sense of the real working situation in America. After graduating you're gonna work -- In this country, you can't work in a restaurant after you graduate," said the student. "You can be in some sort of a company or some other place that relates to your major, or you're wasting your college. But you have never been in that place because you've spent all your time in a restaurant. You can't work elsewhere. The only place you can go to is to work in the restaurant."

There are also inherent disadvantages to being an unlicensed worker.

"If you work off campus, you are not protected," said Liu. "Like if you're working at a restaurant you have no job insurance or [worker's compensation]. I know the government wants every student to be protected by the college or something. You work on campus, you are very well protected."

In the realm of graduate studies, some of the struggles experienced by international students can be magnified by having a nuclear family.

"A lot of us have families that come over to the U.S. on an F-1 visa," said Ancilleno Davis, a 34-year-old Ph.D. candidate in Miami's Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology graduate program. "It's not just you that's restricted in where you work, but your spouse won't be allowed to work at all. Not on-campus and not off-campus."

Going from two full-time professional wages in your home country to one student income in the U.S. can be a massive blow, said Davis. Even graduate students are held to the 20 hours per week F-1 restriction.

Additionally, because of the interdisciplinary nature of Davis' program, it was difficult for him to initially land a research assistantship.

"I think I've worked in six or seven different jobs on this campus and in Hamilton. So, as you can imagine, the toll that takes on someone who's writing a dissertation," said Davis. "The maximum you can work is 20 hours a week, and so you have five hours in this position on one side of campus and five hours in that position on another side of campus. You're working hourly wage jobs in different departments, so there's also a mental toll because you have to switch gears whenever you switch departments. Then, even one of the positions that I got was on the Hamilton campus, so I'd have to take buses to work."

Regardless of employment, international students are here for the same reasons most domestic students are.

"We're here because we want to get an education, but then we also want to be able to survive day-to-day," said Davis. "We want to be able to have enough to eat, we want to be able to socialize and have enough time to do our academics."