Why does the United States demand that some students who come to the United States to be trained in technical fields go back to their native countries? That was one of the issues explored by President Barack Obama in his inaugural address Monday.
“Our journey is not complete until we find a way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are listed in our workforce instead of being expelled from our country,” the president said.
He was referring to the issuance of visas to students who come into the United States to be trained as STEM students, those studying science, technology, engineering and math. At issue are stipulations in immigration law that force many of these students to leave the United States and return to their native countries, particularly those returning to their homes in Asia.
“The president is alluding to a principle that pervades policy in immigration law for generations,” said Michael Wildes, a former U.S. federal prosecutor in New York and now one of the top immigration attorneys in the United States. “That is, we want to keep families united together and second of all, we want to make sure that we don’t train the world’s experts all over only to see them leave our shores.”
Wildes said the U.S. has a political immigration law that hasn’t been revamped in a generation, and as a result, is facing other economies along with wars and politics of yesterday, rather than today’s challenges.
“The politics of the day remain on Capitol Hill,” said Wildes, “where the silence is deafening on immigration reform.” He claimed members of Congress are fearful they will not be reelected if they look like they’re liberal on immigration, and therefore weak on the war on terrorism.
“It takes leadership to remind ourselves about the special DNA of our nation. That is its immigrant backbone and base,” said Wildes. Turning our back on these people is tantamount to ‘shooting ourselves in the foot,’ he added.
But Wildes said this time may be different as far as Congressional passage of new immigration legislation is concerned. His reason is that the immigrant vote in the last election, had what most experts concluded was a decisive effect on the results. “I think both Democrats and Republicans would be shortsighted not to understand the immigrant community worldwide is watching.” If immigration reform isn’t done, said Wildes, that community may not be forgiving in the next election.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment, at least to a certain extent.
“When we admit people on student visas, the terms of the visa is that you come to the United States, you get your education and you go back,” said Ira Mehlman, media director for FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“What we are doing by letting them remain in the United States is simply creating more competition for a lot of American STEM workers who are struggling right now,” Mehlman said. He contended there is no evidence that there is any shortage of STEM workers in the United States.
That is supported by a study done by his own organization, but is not supported by a report released by Georgetown University in October 2011 that said there really is a shortage of STEM workers in the United States. “What we are seeing with the influx of foreign workers through H-1-B programs and other programs that bring in large numbers of similar workers to the United States, we are undermining job prospects and wages for our own STEM workers and actually discouraging more of our own students from going into those fields,” said Mehlman.
The two sides of the issue seemingly move a bit closer to one another when it comes to reform of immigration issues.
“If we decide that the admission of people with high tech skills really is important,” said Mehlman, “we need to look at our immigration policy generally.” He said if the decision is made that we need certain people with certain skills from abroad, then the United States needs to adopt policies based on merit and not on family connections, as is now the case.
Mehlman took issue with President Obama’s call when he said “the president tends to look at immigration from the perspective of immigrants themselves.”
Mehlman said the answer, according to FAIR, is considering what the long term impact would be of foreign students staying in the United States in contrast to what happens when these people return to their countries of origin and become competitors. An alternative, he said, is to invest “in our own people so that they can produce the kind of products that are going to make the United States economically successful in the 21st century.”
Both sides agree “the current immigration policy was established in 1965 and is one that everyone agrees makes absolutely no sense,” according to Mehlman.