The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing yesterday to address the complex issue of how to retain foreign-born technology talent that�s educated here and that stands to spark innovation that creates jobs, without undermining job opportunities for Americans. A parallel issue is how to do that without encouraging the growth of a diploma-mill industry in which unscrupulous academic institutions would lure revenue with the promise of a shortcut to a green card.
The hearing was titled, "STEM the Tide: Should America Try to Prevent an Exodus of Foreign Graduates of U.S. Universities with Advanced Science Degrees?" The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), did a good job of encapsulating the debate. Here�s an excerpt from the statement he submitted to the hearing:
Talented students from around the world contribute to the graduate STEM programs of our universities. In 2009, foreign students received nearly 4 out of every 10 master�s degrees awarded in STEM fields and about the same percentage of all doctorates.
These students have the potential to come up with an invention that could save thousands of lives or jump-start a whole new industry. They also have the ability to start a company that could provide jobs to tens of thousands of American workers.
But what happens to these foreign students after they graduate? They are in great demand by the universities themselves and by American industry. That is why more than 6 out of every 10 science and engineering doctoral graduates from 2002 were still here in 2007.
However, our immigration system does not always put American interests first. We have the most generous level of legal immigration in the world. Yet we select only 5% of our immigrants based on the skills and education they bring to America.
Many people make a compelling argument: Why don�t we simply offer a green card to any foreign student who graduates from a U.S. university with an advanced STEM degree and wants to stay in the U.S.? After all, why would we want to educate scientists and engineers here and then send them home to work for our competitors?
But we should keep several points in mind. First, all graduate degrees are not the same. It takes an average of over seven years in graduate school for STEM students to receive a doctorate. A master�s can be earned in two years.
And when it comes to the proportion of persons who have applied for patents, those with doctorates far outpace those with bachelor�s and master�s degrees. Sixteen percent of scientists and engineers with doctorates working in STEM fields have applied for patents, compared to only two percent with bachelor�s degrees and five percent with master�s degrees.
Second, a visa �pot of gold� could create an incentive for schools to aim solely to attract tuition-paying foreign students with the lure of a green card.
As the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services at the State Department has warned, �A school in the United States can be found for even the poorest academic achiever � Unfortunately, schools that actively recruit foreign students for primarily economic reasons, and without regard to their qualifications or intentions, may encourage such high-risk underachievers to seek student visa status as a ticket into the United States.�
It�s clear that the answer does not lie in stapling a green card to the diploma of every foreign student who obtains a master�s or doctorate degree in a STEM field. So what is the answer? Perhaps it lies in suggestions submitted to the hearing by the American Council on International Personnel, a Washington-based advocacy group that lobbies to advance employment-based immigration for highly educated professionals:
I especially like the �Trusted Employer� idea, and I would be in favor of limiting the issuance of temporary work visas to employees of companies that earn that status. I�m also in favor of approaching this issue with a level head and an open mind. The greater our collective will to do that, the greater our chances of resolving the debate in a way that serves the best interests of our country.