A hiring bind for non-U.S. citizens and banks

March 10, 2009                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader

A hiring bind for non-U.S. citizens and banks

A hiring bind for non-U.S. citizens and banks

What could be worse than graduating from an American business school this year with an interest in banking?

Being such a graduate who is not a U.S. citizen.

A provision in the economic stimulus package limits the hiring of foreign workers by any company receiving government bailout money. In finance, that is nearly every big employer.

At least one financial institution, Bank of America, has rescinded job offers to foreign citizens, citing the new law, signed by President Barack Obama last month.

Some banks are quietly trying to sidestep the limits — and perhaps to make good on their job offers — by finding positions abroad for noncitizens, according to college officials.

Financial institutions seem to be tiptoeing around the core debate about whether it is best to protect American jobs or allow unfettered competition, wishing not to alienate the very lawmakers who are dispensing taxpayer money that is keeping some of them afloat.

Absent precise regulations, which have yet to be issued, big banks are being forced to re-examine the hundreds of students that many of them would normally add to their training classes at the end of the academic year. The bill affects people who might have obtained what are called H-1B visas, typically granted to foreign professional workers with skills sought by United States employers. Existing workers are not affected.

Patricia Rose, director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, said companies were coming up with ad hoc policies. "Each bank is consulting with their outside legal counsel," she said, "and trying to determine what they can and cannot do."

The provision — sometimes called Made in America, because it is intended to preserve jobs for Americans in this time of distress — is being criticized by some immigration advocates and deans of business schools, which draw significant numbers of students from overseas.

"It sends a protectionist-oriented message that's not necessarily conducive to fostering economic recovery," said Bob Sakinawa, associate director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington. People like the business school students affected by the law are valuable assets that the country should use, he said. "Why cut off that avenue of talent?"

R. Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia's business school, raised concerns about the restrictions on hiring in letters to Timothy Geithner, the secretary of the Treasury, and Lawrence Summers, head of the National Economic Council.

In talking with students recently, Hubbard called the limits on companies receiving U.S. government bailout funds "absolutely terrible," according to Columbia. He added, "It gives an advantage to international institutions over American institutions."

The number of people affected is small relative to the job losses of late. According to David Santos, a spokesman for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the number of H-1B visas is capped at 65,000 annually, with some exceptions. And several big colleges and business schools said the effect on their students was minimal.

But the subject of immigration is highly contentious at a time of rapidly rising unemployment.

"What the folks at the financial institutions have done is essentially hire people from abroad at lower wages when there are plenty of American workers who can do very fine work," said Bernard Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and a sponsor of the provision.

Sanders said that he was sympathetic to the plight of students whose job offers had vanished.

"I'm sure they're decent, bright young people," Sanders said of business school students from abroad. "But I also appreciate the people in this country, who have worked their entire lives, who were laid off by the industry. I think they should have the first opportunity."

Representatives of several banks declined to comment about the visa issue, including JPMorgan Chase, which according to the government had about 150 H-1B visa applications approved last year, and Citigroup. At Wells Fargo and PNC, representatives said that the visa provision would have very little effect because the companies hired few H-1B workers.

A spokeswoman for Bank of America confirmed that the company had rescinded job offers to a small number of people who would have needed H-1B visas, citing "recent changes in legislation." The spokeswoman, in an e-mail message, added that the bank "had very much looked forward to these individuals joining the company."

Officials of several colleges and business schools held out hope that when the rules putting the restrictions into effect are issued, they will help resolve concerns. "We're waiting to see, to better understand for each firm, what the implications will be," said Regina Resnick, assistant dean and director of career services at Columbia's business school. "We've reached out to all the firms that recruit here."

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