Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel was a British academic working as a digital scholarship specialist at Johns Hopkins University library since 2015. Recently, she was told by university administrators that they would not be renewing her work visa, which has forced her to abruptly leave the US and return to her home country.
Even though she had prepared the necessary paperwork to renew her H-1B visa – which allows US companies to employ foreign graduates in specialty occupations – on time, the university told her that the rules around the popular visa program have become “more murky and ambiguous”. Filing her renewal might result in a denial, they said, a concern for them as this could be bad for the school and put them under further scrutiny.
Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Mahoney-Steel said: “Just being completely practical, I said the best thing therefore is to go back to the UK as soon as possible and keep down the losses as much as possible by living in my mum’s house”.
She said she was frustrated to leave her position after three years, just as she felt the work she had been doing was coming to fruition and like she was raising the profile of digital humanities at Hopkins.
Mahoney-Steel’s ordeal reflects growing fear and anxiety surrounding the US H-1B visa community under the Trump administration. Since the signing of the Buy American and Hire American Executive Order to end the “theft of American prosperity”, which US president Donald Trump said had been brought on by low-wage immigrant labor, the H-1B visa program has gone through several changes.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) – the federal agency in charge of adjudicating H-1B petitions – has been making more challenges and requests for more evidence by USCIS in its reviews of petitions, causing increased denials and delays to the issuance of some visas.
Rules have been tightened to make it difficult for companies to prove their H-1B employees at third-party worksites possess specific, non-qualifying speculative assignments in specialty occupations. Reports also show increased surprise visits by USCIS’s fraud teams to sites where large numbers of H-1B workers are employed.
This is the context behind Mahoney-Steel’s one-way ticket home.
A Change.org petition started for her states: “We, the undersigned, protest the policies of our government, and all such policies, which callously damage lives such as Tamsyn’s, and communities such as ours. These policies claim to protect our interests, but instead impoverish us of the wealth we find in our diversity.”
At the time of writing, more than 1,800 have signed the petition.
It calls for the university, its peer institutions and all employers to sponsor all workers who face displacement and keep their positions open.
“To carry on with business as usual is to signal that the contributions of our international colleagues are not a valued and vital part of our work and culture,” it said.
It may already be too late in the higher education sphere. US universities are reportedly seeing a decline in international enrolments, which can be partially attributed to the tightening of H-1B visa rules. Many international students decide to enrol in US universities on the premise that they can gain employment under the H-1B visa scheme as a high-skilled worker after graduating.
Rajika Bhandari, senior adviser at the Institute of International Education, said these rules are what’s most likely to hurt international enrollment over the long haul.
Whether students feel welcome changes over time, she said — for instance, the United States saw a temporary decline in international enrollments after the 9/11 attacks.
“The desire to come to the US and acquire that ‘Made in America’ credential rebounds pretty quickly,” she said.