As US weighs tightening visa program, Asia stands to benefit

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Editor's note: This story has been updated with the latest indications about H-1B reform from the White House and the number of H-1B petitions for 2017.

Columbia University alumnus Hongli Lan will have no choice but to leave the United States if he loses the H-1B visa lottery again this year.

The young Chinese quantitative analyst, who says he graduated in 2014 with a master's degree in Mathematics of Finance and GPA of 3.9, was just ready to get his feet wet on Wall Street before a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) notified him of the H-1B lottery rejection.

"Certainly it's not fair," Lan told CNBC. "Chances of winning the lottery are too low for Chinese students and I don't see how the current system benefits high-skilled workers."

The H-1B non-immigrant visa program is meant for specialized workers attached to local employers who say they cannot find enough American employees with the right skills. But because of the high interest in those passes, a lottery system chooses who gets a visa.

And to further complicate matters for visa-seekers, President Donald Trump is set to sign an executive order asking agencies to look into changing the program so as to encourage more domestic hiring of American citizens. (For what it's worth, firms are required to attest that they pay H-1B recipients the same wages they would have for a similar American employee.)

H-1B visas in jeopardy
H-1B visas in jeopardy

In 2016, as U.S. unemployment rates hit multi-year lows, the H-1B visa program was heavily oversubscribed: 236,000 petitions were received by the USCIS — about three times as much as the program's regular cap of 65,000 plus master's cap of 20,000.

This year saw fewer petitions— 199,000, according to USCIS — but that still means most petitioners did not win a visa, regardless of how promising their career future may have been in the U.S.

Fortunately, an eligible STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degree allows Lan to stay and work in the US for up to 3 years, so he still has a second chance.

The 27-year-old, however, has pictured a plan B.

"Going back to China right now is not my first choice due to the nature of the industry I'm working in [quantitative investment]," said Lan. "I might go to Singapore or Hong Kong instead."

Back to Asia: From plan B to plan A

Lan's picks might be shared by many unlucky Chinese elites who lose the H-1B lottery and have to be relocated to their companies' overseas offices. Among the young professionals returning to Asia was Georgetown University graduate Rui Deng.

In 2014, Deng lost the visa lottery and had to leave the U.S. After carefully evaluating locations where her company had set up international offices, she picked Singapore.

"I'm Chinese, so working in Singapore while covering our company's Greater China businesses is very relevant to my expertise," Deng told CNBC over email.

However, Deng said she considers Singapore a temporary stop before moving back to Washington D.C., adding that she had always viewed the city-state as her plan B until the second H-1B lottery rejection letter came in 2015.

"I was very excited when I first came to Singapore because I thought it would just be a short stay," said Deng. "I thought I could go back to the U.S. after the second lottery so I could be with my husband in D.C."

"I wasn't prepared at all for the second lottery failure. But when it happened, I just realized I might never go back again," she added.

I wasn't prepared at all for the second lottery failure. But when it happened, I just realized I might never go back again.
Rui Deng
senior advisor at a corporate solutions company

Deng then decided not to further waste her time betting on the lottery system, but to start focusing her career and life plan in Singapore, making it her plan A.

Three years after moving back to Asia, Deng, now 27, is a senior advisor at a corporate solutions company and says she enjoys her life in Southeast Asia.

"My husband moved here too. We have traveled to quite some Southeast Asian countries, and it's very convenient to go back to China too," she said.

A returning trend

In addition to professionals like Deng, who are relocated back to Asia due to H-1B rejections, many high-skilled personnel with overseas education backgrounds are returning for the rising opportunities in the region.

A report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences showed that only 30 percent of Chinese students studying abroad between 1978 and 2006 chose to return to China after graduation.

It's easier to become a middle-class person in the U.S., but regarding greater opportunities, the U.S. market is becoming less appealing for Chinese students.
Shun Hou
HR manager at staffing and recruiting firm Wyser

That figure has jumped nearly a decade later: According to data provided by China's Ministry of Education, more than 500,000 Chinese students went overseas for education in 2015, and another 400,000 returned home.

"In recent years, the connection between China's domestic job market and global talent market has established and strengthened," said Shun Hou, HR manager at Wyser, a staffing and recruiting company. "It's easier to become a middle-class person in the U.S., but regarding greater opportunities, the U.S. market is becoming less appealing for Chinese students."

And China appears to be growing more attractive. A Chinese government survey conducted in 2016 found that nearly half of survey participants wanted to work in China's leading cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

This survey result is in line with Hou's observation.

"For positions at big companies, the salary gap between China and the U.S. is narrowing while career paths in China are more attractive," Hou told CNBC in a phone interview. "China's multinational companies are craving bilingual talents and Chinese students abroad see this trend."

Opportunity cost is getting higher

Low odds of winning the H-1B lottery and fears of tightening immigration policies under the Trump administration are both helping China lure more top talents back home, according to Hou.

U.S. immigration authorities said the Premium Processing Service of H-1B visas, which allowed petitioners to pay extra $1,225 to request faster approval, will be not available this year. And to some, those extra few months could make a big difference.

It's a one-time shot: Win the lottery this year, or get out of here.
Hongli Lan
a quantitative investment analyst and H-1B lottery hopeful

"Many students will return to China immediately after graduation without even trying to find jobs in the U.S. because they don't want to miss out on the summer recruitment season back home," Hou explained. "The opportunity cost is getting higher to stay in the U.S. — you spend one year to find a job, and wait another half year to find yourself fail the lottery."

But for Lan, waiting is the only option for now.

"It's a one-time shot: Win the lottery this year, or get out of here," he said.