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Let Them (H-1)B

American flag, somewhere near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

Thirteen percent of students admitted to Brown’s Class of 2023 are international, together representing 80 countries. These students are not alone; there are over a million international students studying in the United States today. But after graduation, many of these students must return home to an uncertain future. American institutions are spending valuable resources to educate foreign students—before our system forces them to return home and compete against us. This process is the product of an outdated immigration system that no longer meets the demands of the modern-day economy. Going forward, we must overhaul the student visa, work visa, and employment-based green card systems to make it easier for young foreigners to both study in the US and eventually work here after completing their degrees. This would create a more equitable immigration system that serves the interests of both foreign students and the US economy.

The US government must make it easier for students to obtain visas in the first place. While 360,000 new student visas were issued in 2018, a hefty 195,000 applications were rejected. There are many factors that go into visa refusal, including an applicant’s criminal record or financial status, but the most common reason for rejection is failure to demonstrate nonimmigrant intent. In fact, this requirement was the cause for 75 percent of all nonimmigrant visa rejections in 2018. This is thanks to the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, which requires the US government to presume that all visa applicants intend to permanently immigrate to the US. Applicants for student visas, a type of “nonimmigrant visa,” must prove that they have strong ties to their home country and intend to depart the US after finishing their studies. 

Why do we require proof of nonimmigrant intent in the first place? The US should want highly educated students to stay. There is an easy solution: Make the student visa a “dual intent” visa. Dual intent visa holders are presumed to have immigrant intent; thus, under this scheme, students will not have to prove that they will leave the US after graduation. Some may fear that student visas would be misused, allowing immigrants to use schools as a front for coming to the US for employment. But this concern can be addressed by increasing oversight on universities that seek to sponsor student visas. Many visas are already dual intent visas, such as the H-1B work visa and the E investor visa. These visas are dual intent because we recognize that these workers and investors bring an economic benefit to the country. Students do too, and we should not discourage some of the world’s brightest minds from joining our ranks. 

Another step toward fixing our immigration system is expanding the H-1B visa program and giving the visa to everyone who qualifies for it in a given year. The H-1B visa is intended for temporary employment in “specialty occupations” that require specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or equivalent work experience. Only 85,000 such visas may be issued every year to employees of for-profit companies, but close to 200,000 people have applied for the H-1B visa each year for the past four years. Due to this imbalance, the government randomly selects applicants who will proceed to the next step of the process through a lottery. Many applicants are rejected before an officer even looks at their application. 

These severe limits on the H-1B program likely stem from a concern that native wages and job opportunities will be depressed by foreign workers. This concern, however, is far from settled fact; many studies dispute the idea, including a 2015 study in the Journal of Labor Economics, which showed that an increase in foreign STEM workers is actually associated with “significant wage gains for college-educated natives” and a “smaller but still significant” gain for non-college-educated natives. There have been cases of H-1B visa abuse, but these abuses could be curtailed by strengthening the labor certification process. Furthermore, the H-1B certification process should adopt the standard currently used by the employment-based green card process, where employers must prove that there is no American worker in the area that can do the same job at a comparable wage. With this process in place, foreign workers could not be misconstrued as taking Americans’ jobs because no natural born citizen has the skills necessary to be hired. Instead of subjecting applicants to an arbitrary lottery process, we should give the visa to everyone who can pass this stringent process. Employees for non-profit research organizations, universities, and the government are already exempt from this lottery, and America only stands to gain by having its newly educated college grads enter its workforce in the private sector fields that need them. 

After obtaining an H-1B visa, many will go on to seek employment-based permanent residence (a green card), which is the final broken process we must overhaul. It is important to make the distinction between H-1B work visas and green cards. The H-1B visa lasts only six years before it is no longer renewable, and it is tied to a single employer. However, once a green card is issued, it lasts forever; it can lead to US citizenship after five years, and the worker may change jobs at any time. The green card process is inherently unfair because while the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished restrictions on Asian and African immigration, it also instituted a uniform national quota—currently 25,620—on the number of people who can receive green cards from any given country in one year. This blanket quota has resulted in an immense backlog from populous countries such as China and India. People born in India who filed their applications in April 2009 are just having them processed in April 2019 because the timeline is extremely unpredictable. This practice arbitrarily discriminates against those born in populous nations and should thus be abolished. 

Critics may argue that allowing more international students to stay in the US indefinitely would cause a “brain drain” effect from developing countries, in which highly-educated individuals with the potential to improve their home countries emigrate. This is true to some extent. However, a 2008 study has shown that emigration of highly-skilled people can “stimulate trade, capital flows, and technology transfers” while “stimulating further education at home.” Furthermore, these workers remit money back to their families, which injects capital into an otherwise struggling economy. We must respect the freedom of movement of foreign students who wish to stay in the United States, especially when this freedom brings myriad benefits to their homelands. 

Overall, the US has nothing to lose and everything to gain from loosening its unreasonable grip on student visas, work visas, and green cards. Immigration law is ridiculously complex, but reforming the system to allow highly educated international students to stay in our country is something that will benefit these college grads, the American economy, and the world at large. 

Photo: American Flag