The Well-Prepared (F-1-to-OPT-to- H-1B) Student from India

The American immigration system may be broken, but some would-be migrants have a remarkable, clear-eyed picture of how it works.

I found myself in a Northern Virginia Social Security office the other day sitting next to a tall man in his twenties in a setting roughly akin to that of a long-distance train or a (crowded) cruise ship. One talks easily to strangers under these circumstances, so I got him talking about himself.

Given the long waiting periods for both of us in the jam-packed room we had ample time to chat.

He was from India, had arrived late last year at a DC-area university, was on an F-1 visa, and was, as I guessed, a grad student in telecommunications. He was in the office to get a Social Security number, which he needed for an on-campus job.

I told him that my job was in immigration research and that each year I spent some time working as an income tax volunteer with grad students at another DC-area institution, many of whom are from India and studying telecommunications.

In the course of our conversation I learned from him that F-1 students must have finished two semesters before they can take an off-campus job; a sensible regulation, but a nuance not known to me earlier. I also found that he knew all about the limited rights he currently had to U.S. employment, that once he had finished his degree he recognized that he could work off-campus during a long period under the Optional Practical Training (OPT), that this could lead to an H-1B job, and that in turn (after a lot more waiting) could lead to a green card. These interlocking systems were covered in an earlier report of mine.

I asked if his undergraduate college in India had provided all that immigration information to him. No, he said, he had talked to other high-tech people in India and studied the various programs by himself before he came to the United States. He said that his U.S. university had a special program to help students like him through the intricacies of the immigration law, but it did not sound like he needed any help at all.

He also knew about the Indian outsourcing companies, such as Cognizant and Tata, that often employ people with his background. He told me that working for one of the major American software firms, such as Google or Microsoft, was much preferable to working for one of the Indian firms:

You hear that a friend has a job with Tata, and you say: “Congratulations.”

You hear that a friend has a job with Google and you say: “Wow! How did that happen? That’s terrific.”

His soft voice became animated.

The point is that the level of sophistication of this would-be nonimmigrant worker was impressive and reminded me of similar knowledgeable conversations I had years earlier with foreign grad students where I help with income tax returns. The whole immigration thing may be a maze, but they have a pretty good map of it.

SSA and USCIS. Both the Social Security Administration and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provide federal benefits of different kinds; neither is a law enforcement agency, but their approaches to office security are quite different from each other. As I reported in an earlier blog, I visited the Northern Virginia office of USCIS about a year ago.

Before you can get into the USCIS office, behind its bullet-proof glass, and talk to someone you go through airport-style security arrangements. In the Social Security office, however, there is a security officer (largely for crowd-control), but no such barriers. Some of the interviews take place at windows in the reception room, others in cubicles inside the office. The chairs are equally hard, and the waits equally long, but the atmosphere is more cheerful with Social Security.

The queues in this office were handled in an interesting way new to me, but probably old hat to those who must visit such places. My new grad student friend and I soon figured out the system. People entered and told a receptionist what they wanted; she gave them a ticket for one of six different waiting groups. He was in the “N” group, for new cards; I was in an “A” group, for miscellaneous questions. There were also an “R” group, for retirees; a “D” group, for disability claimants; and a couple of others.

Meanwhile, on the wall there was a big electronic bulletin board telling us which number, in each of the waiting groups, was being served at the moment. As vacancies arose, new numbers were called. It was overall a well-organized tedium. And, as you might expect, the signs were all in both Spanish and English.

I also was curious about what I would experience, as I had not been in such an office for 20 years. I am glad I went.

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