As Congress debates upcoming legislation on immigration reform, we have a new opportunity to consider policies that determine our country's ability to innovate and compete globally. Many international graduates of U.S. graduate programs have historically found ways to remain after graduation, stimulating our economy, supporting groundbreaking research, and creating start-up companies and jobs for all Americans. And yet the influx of highly skilled U.S.-educated immigrants is in jeopardy.
Immigration policies developed in the 1950s have not kept pace with the emergence of new global economies. Economic competitors like China are investing resources in their own graduate institutions, which keeps many students from leaving to pursue graduate education abroad. Meanwhile, higher-education policies in Europe and Canada have generated attractive funding packages designed to recruit the most talented prospective graduate students.
The House of Representatives will soon consider a number of bills to reform immigration laws, and lawmakers must take two clear actions to ensure that we don't lose our nation's greatest import: advanced skills.
First, we must ensure that qualification for "dual intent" status — the ability to declare one's intention to apply for permanent residence in the U.S. while simultaneously residing legally in the U.S. — is extended to all international graduate students. Right now, students must say they have no intention to stay or work in the U.S. upon graduation, even before they begin their studies. This policy encourages the best and brightest students to take their ideas, innovations, and hard work elsewhere.
One could even argue that dual-intent status should be extended to international students pursuing bachelor's degrees whose educational goal is to continue to graduate school in the U.S. Such students could deepen the pool of potential talent from which U.S. graduate programs recruit students. But the most immediate and compelling need is to extend the capacity to all international graduate students at a minimum.
Why do current policies deny this status to international students? In the 1950s, when current immigration policies were put in place, our country was an economy focused on the manufacturing of materials. Now we are part of a global economy based on knowledge. Educating and retaining global talent that supports our country's knowledge economy will be critical to our economic success.
The Skills Act, which the House is likely to consider in the coming months, proposes extending dual-intent status to students pursuing study in a field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, because STEM fields are seen as particularly critical to U.S. innovation. As Gary Shapiro, Head of the Consumer Electronics Bureau, recently put it, "Encouraging bright minds to stay in the United States after graduation ... is critical to secure our country's position as a high-tech hub and global leader in innovation." This is also the perspective of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long viewed highly skilled immigrants as critical contributors to the U.S. economy.
It would be short-sighted, however, to limit dual intent to STEM students only. Why? We simply can't predict where the next innovations and workforce developments will emerge. Will the next innovator be an MBA graduate, like Philip Alexander, an Indian-born American who developed Brandmuscle, which employs nearly 600 software and advertising professionals in four major U.S. cities? Will it be Genevieve Bell, who received an American Ph.D. in anthropology and now leads Intel's efforts to understand the social and cultural factors affecting the way consumers use technology? Dual intent must be extended to all international students, regardless of field, who apply for U.S. visas upon admission to graduate school, as allowed in the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate last year.
Second, we must increase the number of H-1B visas — set aside for specialized workers — available to graduate-degree holders. This visa quota is hampering U.S. innovation at this very moment. The U.S. began accepting visa petitions on April 1, and the cap on H-1Bs was expected to be reached almost immediately thereafter. The visa cap, now set at 65,000, turns away many highly skilled individuals receiving graduate degrees from our universities, people whom U.S. businesses are seeking to stimulate their own growth and prosperity.
While divided on specific immigration policies, the House now faces a choice that is clearly good for all states and all Americans. We must give our country the skills it needs to create more jobs and economic growth for America.
Debra W. Stewart is president of the Council of Graduate Schools.
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This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.