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Opinion: Working while attending college is normal — why are international students limited?

It’s not only normal, it’s often very necessary to work while attending school. These laws need an update to help students and the labor shortage

SHARE Opinion: Working while attending college is normal — why are international students limited?
Yuka Asaumi of the UVU Japan Club does origami as part of a fundraiser for Japan at Utah Valley University in Orem in 2011.

Yuka Asaumi of the UVU Japan Club does origami as part of a fundraiser for Japan. Students in the UVU Japan Club and the International Student Council at Utah Valley University in Orem participated in the fundraiser on March 21, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

To help fix the labor shortage, international students should have a work permit. Utah needs workers to fill available job postings and there are many willing to work if only they could. The solution I’m proposing is to make a small change to our current legal immigration system that will go a long way. 

The United States is home to some of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning. It’s not surprising to learn that every month, the U.S. processes thousands of F-1 and F-2 visa applications from over 100 countries. F-1 visas are granted to immigrants who have been accepted to study at a university. F-2 visas are granted to the dependents and spouses of the international students. All of these applicants are granted legal status in the country while they complete their studies.

Under current immigration law, immigrants with an F-1 visa are limited to a 20-hour workweek at an on-campus job. They are allowed to work full time during holiday breaks and during the summer months. But they cannot work anywhere else even if jobs are available and the immigrant is qualified and willing to work. The problem is that some schools don’t have enough on-campus jobs or even offer on-campus jobs for these students. As a result, many are tempted to find employment that will pay under the table to help pay the bills. 

By contrast, the spouses of international students are completely prohibited from working.

The current law makes no sense. Many F-1 and F-2 visa holders want to work but are limited by their visa conditions.

The rationale behind limiting outside employment for F-1 and F-2 immigrants is to encourage the academic completion of a degree. But this rationale doesn’t apply to a spouse who is not enrolled in school and could otherwise work to help pay the bills. Working while going to school is normal. In fact, close to 70% of all undergraduate students work while going to school. Not only does a job help pay off personal expenses and school tuition, it can also help the employee learn valuable work skills that will be valuable to a potential employer after graduation.

Utah is home to approximately 12,675 international students. Each of Utah’s universities, public or private, welcomes international students to study. 

Utah has been facing a labor shortage as job positions remain available and unemployment remains at a historic low. According to a 2019 analysis from the Kem C. Gardner Institute, nearly 70% of all available job openings through 2026 will require a high school diploma at most.  

To help address the labor shortage and alleviate the financial stress of international students, let them work legally. Allowing international students to work off campus will be beneficial to local businesses struggling to find workers. It will also be a blessing for international students who want to work. Not every international student will choose to work but it will make a world of a difference for those that choose to do so. Allowing F-1 and F-2 visa holders to legally work is not unusual because asylees, refugees and those with temporary protection status are granted a work permit when they come to the United States. 

At the completion of their studies, many of these students will return home with their degrees. Others will find employment in the United States. And some will ultimately become U.S. citizens that will contribute positively to the workforce and their local communities. 

The solution is simple: Let international students have a valid work permit that can apply anywhere. I encourage our federal delegation to consider this solution and lead the way on bipartisan legislation.

Jehicob Torres is a first-generation Mexican American who has lived in Utah all of his life. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in political science from Utah Valley University and is currently a law student at BYU. He is currently employed as a legal assistant at the law firm of Trujillo Acosta.