The United States is currently the most attractive destination for international students, hosting over a million students from around the world in colleges and universities across the country. While some foreign students are awarded merit-based scholarships and fellowships to pursue an education in the United States, nearly two-thirds of international students rely on personal finances to cover their tuition expenses, adding nearly $35 billion every year to the US economy.
Many universities and colleges also rely on the presence of foreign students to increase their revenues, and as a result, the number of foreign students entering the United States has been increasing constantly over the past decade. International students also compete against American counterparts in admissions and go through a much more intense and competitive process to enroll in colleges and universities, thus proving their abilities and talent in their field of studies.
But despite their proven abilities and investment to prepare themselves for success in the job market, international students find themselves with slim chances of securing employment after completing their studies, as most employers are unwilling to deal with the complicated process of sponsoring work visas that involve tedious paperwork and up to $6,000 in application fees. Consequently, a large number of bright, highly-talents individuals are forced to leave the country, despite having acquired the skills to be successful in the market. The current immigration system thus brings highly talented individuals to the country and grooms them by developing their skill-set, only to send them back when they are capable enough to and make meaningful contributions to the U.S. economy. While legislation such as the Senate Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill 2013 has been introduced in the past to retain certain foreign graduates upon getting employment offers, its passage has been marred by political challenges in the Congress.
On the other hand, last year the Canadian government announced changes to its immigration system that eased the path to permanent residency for foreign students enrolled in Canadian higher education institutions. The move, intended to attract the most talented students from across the globe, came just as voters in the United States elected Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to the White House in what some organizations called the “biggest upset in U.S. history”.
Trump’s electoral appeal largely came from his harsh criticism on illegal immigration and his protectionist policy proposals. However, his outspoken comments also created a sense of anxiety and uneasiness among international students in the U.S., who feared an uncertain future and ever-increasing challenges to legally stay in the country despite legally entering the country. Since then, the current administration has taken several steps to crackdown on legal immigration and increase the scrutiny of foreign students, including an executive order to review the H-1B work visa program and a proposal that would require foreign students to reapply for permission to stay in the United States every year.
While the implications of these policies for protecting American interests is debatable, one thing is clear: the current administration’s policies will discourage foreign students to pursue higher education in the United States. While the Institute of International Education hasn’t seen a significant impact on the enrollment of foreign students so far, several newspapers have reported a drop in international applications for Fall 2017. However, the long-term implications of travel bans, increased deportations and legislation to slash immigration is clear – a reduction in inflow of foreign students, especially as other countries such as Canada open their doors to talented students and provide an easier, well-defined path to permanent residency.
The fact that such a large number of students choose to come to the United States in the presence of other alternatives should be a source of pride for the country. The United States is currently facing a skills gap and nearly six million unfilled jobs. Given the labor demands and the benefits that foreign students bring, it is pertinent that leaders in the Congress set aside their political differences and pass comprehensive legislation that attracts the most talented students; one that provides a clear path to legal permanent residence for individuals who contribute to economic development and enhanced innovation. After all, international students choose to come here despite having the option to pursue their studies in many other countries.