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Immigration reform for foreign STEM graduate students

Immigration reform is a tough debate in last decade in the United States. According to New York Times, there are 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. [1]. There are another 1.9 million documented immigrants with temporary visas [2, 3]. Total number of foreign students is 886,052 in the 2013/14 academic year [4]. Approximately, 44,000 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) foreign graduate students completed their degree program in 2011 including around 10,750 PhD students [5].

Foreign students reach the U.S. after satisfying the university admission and visa requirements. They overcome all the culture shocks and become American little by little. They usually pay more than twice in tuition than local students in public universities. Many of them work as a graduate assistant (teaching or research). Some of their research funds directly come from federal authorities including NSF, NASA, NOAA, USDA, USGS, EPA, and so forth. Some of them have multiple degrees from U.S. universities. Most of them finish their masters or doctorates. They publish papers in research journals. Some of them work as a PI (Principal Investigator) in their projects. Many of them obtain patents for their innovation. These students pay income taxes from their first earnings. Local grocery stores to car dealers and credit card companies depend on them to grow their business. After 5 years of staying, their tax status changes to tax-purpose residents and they pay taxes (including social security tax and Medicare tax) equal to U.S. citizens. In the U.S., 11.57 percent of the population above 25 years old have graduate or professional degrees [6, 7]. Therefore, foreign STEM graduate students stay in the top 12 percent based on education. They build good/excellent credit history and driving history. All these criteria are good enough to become eligible to be a permanent resident (also known as lawful immigrant or Green Card holder). However, the current U.S. broken immigration law does not allow them to become permanent residents easily.

{mosads}On successful completion of their degree programs, many foreign graduate students move to OPT (Optional Practical Training). However, OPT is a temporary program with an F-1 visa. These foreign graduates are required to migrate to H1B status which is another temporary guest worker visa program. Unfortunately, there is no immigrant visa program for foreign STEM graduate students. In the Senate comprehensive immigration bill S.744, there was one section [8: page 304-5] stating that foreign STEM graduate students will be eligible for permanent residency upon getting a job offer in their field. Senate bill Startup Act [9] also allows STEM graduate students to obtain a new STEM immigrant visa. However, the I-Squared bill [10] only mentions about increasing H1-B visa and removing the cap for STEM graduate students. It says nothing about permanent residency for STEM graduates without H1-B visa.

The difference between the H1-B visa and the immigrant visa is like that between bondage and freedom. H1-B usually depends on the employer’s wish. From filing H1-B to extending H1-B and applying for permanent residency  — all depends on the employer’s wish. This “one-way wish” may disrupt the balance between employer and employee and make the employee’s rights, interest, and freedom vulnerable including, but not limited to, pay raises and job changes. The U.S, holds its place in the world because of allowing freedom. Providing immigrant visas for 50,000 STEM graduates from U.S. universities (who are already trained and highly skilled) each year will not destroy American job markets. It will create another 130,000 jobs (one foreign STEM graduate helps to create 2.6 jobs, [11]) every year. Right now, in temporary visa status, these foreign scholars are under pressure to find a space (immigration purpose) for themselves. If they are freely able to live here, they can fully focus on their jobs. This freedom will help them mentally, emotionally, and professionally, which will benefit the U.S. economy and create new innovations.

To address Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-Ala.) concern that “three out of four American with STEM degree do not work in STEM field, let me point out that, to solve this problem requires time, such as a decade. This problem cannot be solved in a day and stopping work permits to foreign STEM graduates will worsen this problem, it will just halt the job and economic growth. Moreover, U.S. policymakers can take benefit from foreign scholars to advance its STEM programs and domestic STEM students.

Allow foreign STEM graduate students to move from OPT to temporary residency status. They will stay in temporary residency status for 3 years, where they will work in their field and if necessary will pay 2-5 percent additional income tax to fund US STEM programs from K-12 level. After three years, upon checking work history and tax history, STEM foreign students will get permanent residency. The policymakers should allow foreign STEM graduate students freedom and let them love this country as Americans do.

Al Mamun is a STEM graduate from a U.S. research university.

Tags Jeff Sessions

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