A distinguished panel of experts met at the Brookings Institution March 26th in Washington D.C. as part of the Dreier Roundtable to discuss the topic of “Bridging the Immigration Divide: Forging a Bi-Partisan Policy on Visas for STEM Graduates.”
The Roundtable, jointly sponsored by CMC and the Brookings Institution (a leading American think tank), is the idea of the Hon. David Dreier ’75, a 32-year veteran of Congress and longtime chairman of the House Rules Committee.
According to Dreier, the March 26th event marked the launch of the Roundtable in Washington. (A prior Roundtable held last November at Claremont McKenna was the official launch of the CMC/Brookings partnership.)
“The issue of immigration and visas for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students and looking at H1B visas (tech worker visas) is important and critical for our economic growth,” Dreier said.
The H1B visa classification permits a foreign national to work in the U.S. for a temporary period and is available for offers of employment in a specialty occupation. A person may hold H1B status for a maximum of six years, and it may be issued in increments of up to three years by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Dreier said it was most important to insure that American citizens not lose job opportunities to people who have come into this country to study. “I do believe that we need to have the best and the brightest here in the U.S,” he said. “We need to continue to be a magnet that draws very capable people here.
“I’ve long been a proponent of ensuring that whatever the structure is, we don’t take jobs from qualified Americans. However, at the same time, we must ensure that businesses in this country have access to the best potential employees that they can have.”
William Antholis, Director and CEO, Miller Center, University of Virginia moderated the session that included panelists; CMC President Hiram Chodosh, Daniel Costa, Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research, Economic Policy Institute, Amy Nice, Executive Director, Immigration Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Neil Ruiz, Senior Policy Analyst and Associate Fellow, Brookings Institution.
Currently the U.S. is the No. 1 destination for study for foreign students worldwide with undergraduate and post-graduate students from India and China particularly eager to study here.
“The value of foreign students to the U.S. economy is great,” Mr. Ruiz said. “During the recession when many state universities were cash-strapped, foreign students who were paying full freight for their tuition were a godsend. In the medium-term, these students offer viable skills to the labor market and in the long-term, the alumni network here in the U.S. enables them to be economic ambassadors that connect the U.S. economy with other economies around the globe to facilitate trade and international exchange.”
Unfortunately, the “brain drain” of foreign students leaving the U.S. after obtaining their degrees is problematic – because of the difficulty in obtaining work visas – and there is no easy solution in sight.
“We have an immigration system that is quite archaic,” Ruiz said. “It can take 10 years or more to get a green card which allows someone to stay and work permanently in the U.S if, that is, they’re sponsored by an employer. What’s more, Congress set a limit that only 7 percent of green card applicants per year from any country can get one. India and China are the number 1 and 2 senders of students to the U.S., so that quota becomes a problem. If you come from a small country like Luxembourg, you’re lucky because there is obviously less competition.”
Until now, only ineffective “band aid” solutions that involve executive action (from George W. Bush during his term and Barack Obama during his) have made the situation of getting student visas slightly easier but it is, in the words of Ruiz, still “sub-optimal.”
For Ms. Nice, any compromise or seeming consensus on the issue of bi-partisanship for visas for STEM students is illusory.
“It doesn’t take much conversation for those of us who are working in this arena to come to a few certainties; when people talk about finding common ground, in reality, there really isn’t any common ground,” she said. “We have to be committed to solving this problem through compromise.
“When you look at the issue from the perspective of businesses and employers who are on a talent search and want to fill positions in the U.S., they go to accredited U.S. universities and are looking for people at the graduate level. And the fact is, somewhere around 40 percent of the people they interview in science and technology and math fields are going to be foreign-born students.”
According to Nice, everyone must look at the key elements of the issue from all the different perspectives and then sit down with the idea of solving the problem – not finding common ground.
For Mr. Costa, the issues are even more indistinct and complex. He agreed with other panelists that for the purposes of debate and discussion in the context of policymaking, achieving bi-partisanship consensus was “virtually meaningless.”
He said that if the premise is to keep more foreign graduate students in the U.S., that concern “assumes we have labor shortages in the STEM fields that we need to fill and that is a contested issue.” In addition Costa postulated that such an assumption takes for granted having more foreign STEM graduates stay in the U.S. labor market is a good thing.
“And that leads to another question of whether foreign STEM graduates are actually leaving the country. I’m not sure that’s the case,” he said. “Authoritative studies show that about 2/3 of that number are still here after 10 and 15 years.”
Universities often are at the intersection of important public policy issues and this is clearly an example of that phenomenon. With foreign students accounting for large numbers of university enrollees and a big infusion of cash, higher education has become one of the leading export businesses of the U.S.
“I do feel that we don’t have a national strategy or anything that comes close to a national strategy largely because we have not figured out what are the human capacities that we want to grow in our society and to what extent do foreign students play a role in that growth,” President Chodosh said, addressing the issue from an academic perspective.
“We shouldn’t be thinking of things in terms of just shortages. We should be thinking about how we grow a national capacity and not just to supply labor but for the kind of innovation that society needs that drives value.”
Felicia Escobar, Special Assistant to the President for Immigration Policy and Barry Jackson, former political advisor to President George W. Bush and former chief of staff to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner – in closing remarks – thanked the panel for shedding light on an important issue.
“It’s not easy,” Ms. Escobar said, “but it’s important for us to be having the dialogue and continuing the conversation as we try to get to a place where our immigration system is no longer broken but actually working for all kinds of folks.”