Even as a little boy growing up in China’s Jiangxi province, Leo Wang knew he wanted the American dream.
He loved the idea that working hard and following the rules could guarantee success, and he remembers watching from afar as a booming tech sector drew some of the world’s top talent to Silicon Valley.
Wang even owned a hard drive from Seagate — a company he and his parents admired, and one that would eventually pour months of effort into hiring him.
But he admits now that he was naive about some aspects of America before he arrived as a graduate student in 2015.
Wang, now 32, knew of President Donald Trump, whom he used to watch on “The Apprentice.” But he never imagined that the tough-talking presidential candidate who railed endlessly against illegal immigration would one day become an insurmountable hurdle to his own efforts to immigrate to the US.
“I didn’t think his policies were going to affect H-1B visas — people who work hard and are educated and who follow all the rules,” Wang told INSIDER. “I didn’t think that was going to affect us. That part that I didn’t know that much about. In some ways it maybe disappointed me about America.”
Wang was one of 85,000 skilled foreign workers selected annually by lottery as part of the highly competitive H-1B visa program, which grants three-year visas to workers who have already secured jobs and sponsorship from employers in the US.
He is also part of a growing number of H-1B petitioners whose application was ultimately rejected amid the increasingly cumbersome series of bureaucratic hurdles the Trump administration has implemented — which experts and industry leaders decry as a crackdown on talented workers that companies are keen to recruit.
Wang’s American dream began when he attended to the University of Southern California in 2015, first for an MBA before switching to a master’s degree. From university, Seagate quickly snapped him up, hiring him on a temporary post-graduate visa to work as a senior program/project manager.
But Wang’s hopes were dashed on January 4, 2019, when USCIS formally denied his petition for the H-1B visa that would have allowed him to continue working at Seagate, according to documents INSIDER viewed.
“This is supposed to be the place where you are very likely to achieve your dream if you work hard and follow the rules, and I feel like I’m one of the very unlucky ones who fell through the cracks,” Wang said. “The American dream fell short for me.”
Wang left the US on February 18 and returned to China. Seagate did not respond to INSIDER’s request for comment.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which adjudicates H-1B visas, would not comment on Wang’s case. But a spokesperson told INSIDER in a statement that each case is evaluated individually, and petitioners are free to appeal their cases if they believe they were wrongly denied.
“USCIS adjudicates all petitions on a case-by-case basis to determine if the petitioner met the burden of proof to establish eligibility for the benefit sought consistent with applicable laws and regulations,” the spokesperson said.
‘American companies try to bring the best talent on, period’
Several of the hurdles Wang faced during his H-1B application process can be traced back to the Buy American, Hire American executive order Trump signed on April 18, 2017.
The order specifically targeted the visas in an effort to ensure they were only awarded to the “most-skilled or highest-paid” workers.
But that’s not quite how recent changes to the program have played out, immigration lawyers who specialize in H-1B visas told INSIDER.
Reaz Jafri, a partner at the international law firm Withers, often advises companies seeking to sponsor H-1B workers. He said in the last two years he’s seen a steep uptick in H-1B visa denials for reasons similar to the one listed in Wang’s denial letter.
USCIS wrote in the letter that Wang’s job was not technically a “specialty occupation,” in part because Seagate could not prove the “unique or complex nature of the position,” and could not demonstrate why the job required a worker with Wang’s specific degrees.
“A bachelor’s level of training in a specific specialty is not required for the Market Research Analysts occupation,” the denial letter said, referring to a broad category under which Wang’s job fell. “Many have degrees in fields such as statistics, math, or computer science. Others have backgrounds in business administration, the social sciences, or communications. As a result, the proffered position cannot be considered to have met this criterion.”
Jafri said he sees USCIS raise similar concerns in more than half the H-1B cases his firm files. Often, the agency raises those concerns in the form of “requests for evidence”, which can stall H-1B petitions for months, as Wang’s was.
“Let’s say I want [to hire someone with] a degree in engineering,” Jafri said. “They’re saying because the job can be done by someone with a degree in computer science or math, you cannot require an engineering degree, and therefore it’s not a specialty occupation.”
Jafri added that the strict interpretation of “specialty occupation” USCIS uses demonstrates a lack of understanding of how US employers seek out talent.
Companies don’t actively seek to recruit foreign workers — particularly when the H-1B process is so difficult, he said.
Rather, he said the companies hire the foreign workers despite having to undergo the expensive and lengthy H-1B process, because they believe the workers are so valuable they’re worth the effort.
“There seems to be a resistance on the part of USCIS of almost all H-1B cases, because they are looking to see, ‘Is this consistent with this directive that Americans should buy American goods and hire American workers?'” Jafri said. “US companies don’t proactively go out and hire foreign workers. They do it because there’s a shortage of certain types of skilled labor, and American companies try to bring the best talent on, period.”
These types of denials also present a significant disruption to the tech companies that seek to employ these workers.
Not only is the H-1B process a long, arduous one, it’s also expensive and can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a single applicant, according to Peter Leroe-Muñoz, a vice president of tech and innovation at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
“It is a long and winding path they must walk in order to get those employees,” Leroe-Muñoz told INSIDER. “The impact is severe in terms of time, and financial cost … It is an investment that companies make in terms of time, money, and resources.”
‘Focus on the actions, not the words’
But despite the crackdown on H-1B visas, in recent weeks Trump has sought to reassure the tens of thousands of international students and would-be foreign workers vying for work permits that his administration will reform the H-1B process to make things easier for them.
“H1-B holders in the United States can rest assured that changes are soon coming which will bring both simplicity and certainty to your stay, including a potential path to citizenship,” Trump tweeted on January 11. “We want to encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the U.S.”
The tweet prompted bewilderment among immigration experts and H-1B holders. Firstly, H-1B visa holders can already access a “path to citizenship,” should their employers choose to sponsor them for green cards.
Secondly, and more importantly, the Trump administration has taken few if any concrete actions to bring foreign talent into the US, according to Stuart Anderson, the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy.
“I don’t think anyone can identify a single measure the administration has done to encourage more people to come into the country legally,” Anderson told INSIDER. “I think anyone looking at the policies should focus on the actions, not the words. I think if you look at the actions, there are actions they could take to make improved policies, but we haven’t seen them taken.”
Instead, data show that the Trump administration has begun denying and delaying H-1B visa petitions at a much faster rate than under previous administrations.
Rates of RFEs and H-1B visa denials soared shortly after Trump took office, according to a National Foundation for American Policy analysis of USCIS data. Between the third and fourth quarters of the fiscal year 2017, USCIS began denying 41% more H-1B visas and issuing 67% more RFEs.
Wang, too, appeared confused by Trump’s remarks in light of his own H-1B struggles.
“I don’t know whether he meant what he said,” Wang said. “I do agree with that and would appreciate Trump’s statement. But I would say, there are some cracks in the system right now.”
‘There’s no such thing as a fixed number of jobs’
The Trump administration has long rationalized its crackdown on the H-1B program as necessary to protecting high-paying US jobs for American workers.
Even during Trump’s presidential campaign, he blasted US companies’ reliance on foreign workers, accusing them of boxing American workers out of jobs so they could hire cheaper labor.
“The influx of foreign workers holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high, and makes it difficult for poor and working class Americans – including immigrants themselves and their children – to earn a middle class wage,” a cached version of his campaign website read. “We need companies to hire from the domestic pool of unemployed. Petitions for workers should be mailed to the unemployment office, not USCIS.”
But Anderson said there’s no evidence to suggest that H-1B visa holders like Wang take Americans’ jobs.
Wang told INSIDER he’d even dreamed of one day starting his own business, and anticipated creating jobs of his own.
“Despite the economic evidence that there’s not a zero-sum game in job production, I think the policy is gong to continue to be based on the premise that every time someone new enters the labor force, someone loses a job, despite the economic evidence that that’s simply not true,” Anderson said. “Because there’s no such thing as a fixed number of jobs.”
Trade associations representing tech companies have also fought against the notion that immigrants suck up American jobs. Michael Hayes, a senior manager of government affairs at the Consumer Technology Association, told INSIDER that immigrants — and particularly those who come to the US on H-1B visas — are a boon for job creation.
“Look at the number of tech companies, the number of Fortune 500 companies that are founded by immigrants or by the children of immigrants, and the enormous amount of American jobs that these individuals are creating,” Hayes told INSIDER. “These people are an enormous asset to our country, and we should be doing everything they can to make sure their economic contributions are happening here in the US.”
But another major concern with the H-1B program in previous years has been abuse from outsourcing firms that snap up huge proportions of the annual 85,000 visas, and give them to relatively low-paid workers.
In 2014, for instance, 13 global outsourcing companies took roughly one-third of all the available H-1B visas, according to a New York Times analysis of USCIS data and research from Howard University professor Ronil Hira.
But experts say there are better ways to crack down on abuse from outsourcing firms. William Kerr, a professor of business administration at the Harvard School of Business, told INSIDER that one of the best ways to prevent companies from gaming the system is to simply raise the minimum salary requirements for H-1B visas from $60,000 to a figure much higher — perhaps around $100,000.
Kerr said the hike would ensure that the visas are reserved for highly paid, highly educated workers like Wang, and that the visas are truly being allocated to some of the most talented foreign workers being hired in the US.
“What I would want to convey, if I had a chance to whisper in President Trump’s ear or [Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen] Nielsen’s ear, is that there’s a difference between screening for the best people and just the system being very hard,” Kerr said. “The system being very hard will screen, but it’s not going to give a very high-fidelity screen on the things that we want. Let’s try to find ways to make it better.”
‘I won’t be coming back on an H-1B’
Wang said he has no regrets about the time he spent in the US, but he’s frustrated over the months he wasted waiting for his H-1B to be processed, and bitter that his career was derailed over a few bureaucratic hang-ups.
Though Wang is optimistic he’ll soon snap up a new job, and has already begun interviewing at a major international company’s headquarters in Singapore, he knows his next employer may not look fondly on the nearly four years Wang spent in the US.
“The new environment won’t necessarily take whatever I have learned here as something valuable for them,” he said. “So I have to prove myself in a new environment again. It could change my career progression in many ways.”
Wang said he still loves the US and is grateful for the opportunity to live in a society so fundamentally different from the one he grew up in. He said he hopes he’ll be back in the US one day — but he’s not counting on it anytime soon.
“Even if I’m coming back to the US sometime in the future, I won’t be coming back on an H-1B,” Wang said. “Never on an H-1B.”