Over the past few years, partisanship in Washington has grown to the point that few substantive bills become law. The partisan divide at times seems insurmountable. Immigration reform has a chance to be a rare bipartisan exception.
Our nation has long prided itself on being a land of opportunity for those seeking a better life. With time, however, our immigration system has broken down. The system neither fairly serves those who want to come here nor maximizes the economic opportunities that immigrants can provide for this nation.
Recognizing this, Congress may finally act. While the U.S. House of Representatives is still developing legislation, immigration reform is steadily moving forward in the Senate where a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" drafted a strong bill that is serving as the legislative foundation. The Senate is currently debating amendments to this proposal with a vote on the overall measure expected this week.
This bill deserves the full support of higher education because it presents an extraordinary opportunity for our nation, including colleges and universities whose missions to promote education, research and economic growth will be advanced with immigration reform. Those of us in higher education must seize this moment to urge our senators to pass this bill. While the situation seems ripe for agreement, we know far too well that even the smallest bumps in the road can cause this process to unravel. It’s critical to underscore that a well-stocked pool of talent at American universities will feed directly into American businesses and create new ones that will help power our nation’s economy forward. The more we collectively make the case for the economic benefits of reform, the better the chances for overwhelming passage.
The bipartisan bill moving steadily through the Senate is filled with an array of provisions that have been long overdue. The measure establishes an expedited pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. These young people are here through no decision of their own and 65,000 of them graduate from U.S. high schools each year. They should have a process in place to become citizens. And they also should have the opportunity to go to their states' public colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates at the state’s discretion while participating in federal student loan and work study programs. The Senate bill would make all of this possible.
The Gang of Eight and many others also recognize the economically self-defeating policy of training the best international STEM students at U.S. universities only to force them to leave for no reason other than a lack of employment visas. To fix this, the bill streamlines and expands the green card process and eliminates many of the current system’s worst features. To be fair, there are some further improvements the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) would still like to see made either through the amendment process now or in conjunction with action in the House, such as ensuring that agriculture, natural resource, and other science fields are included within the definition of STEM. Nevertheless, overall the provisions in the bill are a vast improvement from the current system.
And just as important as having the best and brightest students in our classrooms is having the top professors from around the world to teach them. APLU and our fellow higher education associations worked very hard to successfully secure an amendment to rid the bill of several bureaucratic hurdles that would impede some universities utilizing the H-1B visa process that authorizes such temporary work. As a result of advocacy efforts with federal relations officers of many universities, higher education associations, and the critical support of the Gang of Eight, the bill no longer places some universities within a suspect class of H-1B users considered H-1B skilled worker dependent employers.
Those opposed to immigration reform are aggressively working to derail any action. They are calling, e-mailing, tweeting, mailing, faxing, and doing everything they can to overwhelm House and Senate offices in order to block reform. To counter that, the higher education community must unite and let our lawmakers know that those other voices do not represent the majority of Americans.
The Senate bill includes most of the changes those of us in the higher education community have been seeking for the past several decades. Now that we find them included in a comprehensive immigration bill making its way through Congress we cannot allow this chance to slip away. Doing so is important for higher education, but most of all it is important for our country.
Peter McPherson is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.