Economy will benefit from immigration reform

Written off as dead, real immigration reform is back on the agenda in Washington - good news for American universities, American businesses and all of us who want to accelerate our slow economic recovery.

President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to immigration reform in his State of the Union address– and Republican leaders have expressed a willingness to work toward a successful bill. It may be that leaders of both parties have heard a loud and clear call over the last few months from business and higher education that we need the energy and intellect that constructive immigration reform can unleash if we are to remain competitive in the world economy.

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In 2012-2013, more than 819,000 international students studied in the U.S. – 3.9 percent of the total student population, contributing more than $24 billion to the U.S. economy. In many states, including Massachusetts, international students make up more than 5 percent of the student population. At the University of Massachusetts, 4,423 students – 6.25 percent of total enrollment – were international in 2012. Most were degree-seeking graduate or doctoral students studying business administration, electrical and computer engineering, computer science, and chemistry and about half were citizens of China and India. For example, at the UMass flagship campus in Amherst, nearly 25 percent of graduate students were international and 48 percent of the overall pool of graduate school applicants were international students.

UMass is not alone. Universities are magnets for talented immigrants, particularly in the innovation-rich fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). These graduates are consistently among the most productive workers in our economy.  Far from taking jobs from Americans, they spur the creation of new ones.  Every foreign-born advanced degree graduate working in a STEM field creates 2.62 American jobs.

Unfortunately, U.S. immigration policies have failed to keep pace in an increasingly globalized 21st-century economy.  Outdated policy restrictions have prevented international students with STEM degrees, from American universities, from transitioning into our workforce.  We train the world’s brightest minds, only to have those students compete against us because our immigration laws do not offer a viable path forward.  The bottom line is that this country’s innovation economy loses when international students are forced to take their skills, ideas and future job growth elsewhere. Furthermore, similarly restrictive immigration policies shut out from our economy thousands of skilled foreign workers and entrepreneurs. 

This is why the University of Massachusetts has joined with other universities to support federal immigration reform.   Similarly, the Greater Boston Chamber is leading a national coalition of more than 60 regional Chambers of Commerce from across the country seeking to enact skilled worker immigration reforms.  Higher education and business recognize there is too much at stake for our nation’s long-term competitiveness to allow this critical issue to go unaddressed.

Last year, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform that dramatically improves our nation’s ability to retain global talent.   House leadership has indicated a new willingness to act. They must seize this historic opportunity to pass immigration reforms, particularly focusing on the following areas:

  • Graduates – Increase the availability of permanent resident visas (green cards) for foreign students graduating from a U.S. university with an advanced degree in the STEM fields.   A policy in which green cards are “stapled to the diplomas” of STEM graduates will help reverse the international brain drain of these highly-educated young people. In addition, allowing dual intent for F-1 student visas would enable more employers to start the green card process while students are in school or a related training program.
  • Skilled Workers — Increase the availability of temporary, skilled worker (H-1B) visas by substantially raising the annual cap and enabling market-based adjustments.  Creating a streamlined, market driven H-1B visa program will boost the competitiveness of our nation’s healthcare, life science, technology, manufacturing, finance and insurance industries.  In addition, reallocating the fees collected from H1-B visas and STEM green cards to fund state-level STEM education and worker retraining programs could bolster the domestic skilled worker pipeline.
  • Entrepreneurs – Create new startup visas for immigrant entrepreneurs who launch businesses here and meet key job creation, revenue generation, and financing goals.  U.S. immigration law does not currently provide an entrepreneur visa – a policy gap increasingly out of step with our economic competitors.  Creating a new visa category will ensure that the U.S. remains a global center for startups and innovation for decades to come.

As a nation, we cannot afford to put off reforming our immigration system any longer.  Our future success depends upon Washington acting collaboratively so that we can continue to attract and retain the world’s smartest and most entrepreneurial students and workers.

Caret is president of the University of Massachusetts and Guzzi is president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.