America / Immigration / Politics

Immigration Policy: The Plight of America’s Foreign Students

For many foreign students in America, immigration reform is a cause for concern. The idea that a U.S. degree will lead to employment is far from reality. Opportunities are rather limited and many international students have little or no chance of remaining in the U.S. under the current immigration system. When international students complete their undergraduate studies, they have three basic paths:

  • Pursue a graduate degree
  • Return to their home country, taking with them their expertise, ideas, and efforts
  • Gain employment through Optional Practical Training (OPT) with the hope of earning sponsorship to an H-1B temporary work permit

The US attracts only 21 percent of all students studying abroad and competition from nations like Australia, France and Japan is making it harder for the U.S. to attract international students. This is especially true as many nations are modifying their immigration policies to attract the best and brightest students to not only study but to remain in their host nation post-graduation. OPT is a work authorization for international students with F-1 status who have completed their degrees and plan to seek employment in their field of study. While OPT is helpful, most students are only able to stay on this status up to one year. According to Brookings, in 2010 there were 188,000 international students on an F-1 visa and only 26,500 students were able to transfer to an H-1B temporary visa.

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There is no guarantee that a company will sponsor an H-1B work visa, which permits work for up to six years after graduating. Also, the typical cost is between $1,000 and $1,500, and the company needs to prove that an American cannot fill the job opening. Under the current visa system, if an employer sponsors an H-1B worker for a green card to stay permanently in the United States, the wait can be over ten years, especially for individuals from highly backlogged countries such as India or China. If legislation is passed to give green cards to foreign students who graduate with advanced degrees in STEM fields from American universities, the number of foreign graduates working in the United States could increase dramatically.

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The current U.S. visa system makes it challenging to retain foreign students, but new proposals could change that. Recently, some congressmen have reopened discussions to reform current immigration policies. The majority are in favor of retaining foreign students studying at U.S. universities to improve the United States’ economic competitiveness. Yet, despite bipartisan consensus, Congress continues to disagree over the details. Also, some fear that an accelerated inflow of foreign workers may depress wages and crowd out job opportunities for Americans. While these concerns are important, international students did contribute $21.8 billion to the US economy and created 300,000 jobs in 2011-2012.

If Congress wants to pass broad immigration policy reform, they must tackle additional immigration problems, including illegal and undocumented immigrants. This creates a unique problem for Congress to tackle in immigration reform. As Congress debates over the details in creating visas to retain America’s foreign students, they must ensure that smart policy is adopted. For the moment, immigration reform will just have to wait until the federal government reopens.

Image Sources: The Brookings Institution

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