When it comes to international-student recruitment, one of Canada and Australia’s biggest selling points is the ease of the pathway from study to work. This is by design: Australia and Canada have skills-based immigration systems, while America’s gives preference to family ties.
President Biden wouldn’t change that, but he would make it easier for a subset of international students, those who earn PhDs in STEM fields, to get green cards. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, I wrote about the Biden plan
and why some hope it could help international recruiting overall by sending a new, more-welcoming message to prospective students.
Here’s some more reporting from my notebook that didn’t make it in the article:
When I spoke with Miriam Feldblum of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, she characterized the work ahead of the Biden administration as falling into “three buckets”: undoing “harmful measures” put in place by the Trump administration, fixing longstanding problems in the immigration and visa systems, and big-sky proactive change.
The green-card measure is a second-bucket effort, a tweak to bring the system more in line with present-day needs, she said. “It’s about getting the gears working well again,” she told me.
I also interviewed Michael Roach, a Cornell University professor who is out with a timely paper looking at the costs and complexities of the current system.
Roach and his co-author, John Skrentny of the University of California at San Diego, found that international graduates of American STEM doctoral programs often have to “buy time” until they can gain permanent residency, using Optional Practical Training and H1-B skilled worker visas to stay in the U.S. and work. Nearly eight in 10 STEM doctorates from India and two-thirds of those from China are on H1-Bs as they wait for green cards.
The lack of a clear pathway creates uncertainty for foreign graduates, Roach and Skrentny found, but it also disadvantages startup companies who may find it too costly or burdensome to sponsor H1-Bs. “This is a highly competitive labor market,” Roach said of science and technology grads.
Finally, Rachel Banks and Heather Stewart of NAFSA made the point that President Biden doesn’t just have legislative fixes at his disposal — there are also administrative and policy changes he can make to aid international students.
These include speeding up the processing of visas and OPT work authorizations, not singling out international students for special scrutiny at ports of entry, and giving consular officials more flexibility in interpreting international students’ “intent” in their visa applications so that they are not denied visas because they might want to stay in the U.S. and work. (NAFSA and 47 other higher-ed associations sounded a similar message in a letter
sent last week to the new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken.)
Banks, senior director of public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA, also referenced an idea floated by Samantha Power, a Harvard professor who is Biden’s nominee to run USAID: that the new president should give a major speech emphasizing his commitment to international students. (Here’s my take
on Power’s proposal from November.) It’s important, Banks said, to “telegraph that there’s new management.”
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