The Argument Left Unsaid About Foreign Students

It's time to admit that many of those who enroll in United States colleges want to stay after graduation, and to make the case that this is advantageous, writes Gautham Pandiyan.

March 14, 2008

A friend of mine will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Duke University this spring. He has had two competitive internships, high grades and has been an active force on campus. Finding a job will still be a problem. Why? Because he is an international student. “Unfortunately, I won't be eligible for this year's H1 (work permit) visa pool (given out by a lottery),” he told me. “That may mean I'll have to leave the country again for a short period of time. I am a Canadian citizen and so am trying to use that to my advantage but it could still get messy.” Even having a job offer from a top-notch company no longer provides any certainty in being able to work in the U.S. for many international students that come here from all across the globe, spending money, energy and years of their life to chase the “American Dream.”

According to the U.S. State Department, “U.S. law requires that most people who apply for nonimmigrant visas must provide evidence that they do not intend to immigrate to the United States.” A student visa is classified as a nonimmigrant visa and therefore all international students intending to study in the United States are required to prove to the consular officer in their country that they do not intend to remain in the United States after they finish their degrees.

American academic leaders talk a great deal about the importance of foreign students -- about how we bring expertise to academic programs, diversity and international perspective to campuses, and how we bring American values of democracy back home with us. All of those things are true, but it may also be time to end the silence with which both American academic leaders and foreign students pretend that many foreign students don’t want to stay in the U.S. after graduation and pretend that it makes sense to invest millions of dollars in students -- only to kick them out of the country before they can contribute to the U.S. economy.

A vast majority of my international student peers at Duke University desire to stay and work in the U.S. after completing their graduate degrees, at least in the short-term. The same is true for foreign students at most colleges in the United States. However they face a difficult quandary in trying to find a job. Most employers are looking for students with U.S. permanent residency or citizenship, but in order to obtain those, students need a job -- somewhat of a "chicken and egg" dilemma. A master’s of engineering management student student I know from Turkey was turned away at a recent career fair by several company booths by signs saying “U.S. Citizens only” or “International Students do not apply”.

“International companies ask for ‘only American Citizen’ applicants, which I find a little bit weird,” he said. This is an increasingly common occurrence at career fairs across the country, as work permit visas dry up extremely quickly and fewer employers are willing to sponsor an international student for a work permit, a laborious and expensive process. In a recent survey conducted by the International Student Concerns Committee of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, preliminary results indicate that the main concern for an overwhelming majority of international students is employment upon graduation.

An international graduate who wished to remain anonymous had this to say about the difficulties he is facing despite working at a prestigious financial firm. He did not get a work permit visa in the visa lottery, which is how these visas are given out. He said, “The whole process of applying for a [work] visa and the massive amounts of paperwork, the heartache of never being sure what's going to happen, and the fact that I don't know where I'm going to be even three months from now, quite frankly, is a pain. I think I am accretive to society and I deserve better.”

Obviously international students see the anti-immigrant movement that has so much influence in American politics today. Most of this is meant to target illegal immigration but also ends up affecting legal immigrants such as international students, who fill in huge reams of paperwork and jump over many hurdles to maintain their legal status. And international students know that immigration can be a sensitive issue -- as it is in some of our home nations. But other countries are not so quick to turn away those most likely to help their economies.

Canada, Australia and Britain are all countries with a point-based system that awards potential immigrants based on their education, time in the country and so on that enables them to obtain permanent residency. This includes students, and does not usually require an employer to sponsor a student through this process. As students around the world decide where to go for their higher education, these countries suddenly appear more attractive when the prospects of staying and working after graduation are considered.

So why should we be concerned about international students at all? As we trend towards a knowledge-based economy, it is imperative that we remain competitive in the global marketplace. More and more professions now require graduate degrees. According to a study by the Institute of International Education, at the end of 2005, there were 565,039 international students studying in the United States, contributing $13.3 billion to the economy -- just in tuition and living expenditures. Of these students, 48.6 percent were graduate and professional students, who additionally contribute by teaching courses, conducting research for professors, and going on to become key contributors in driving the knowledge-based economy. Due to more aggressive recruitment by other countries, difficulties in getting visas, and hurdles to being able to stay and work after obtaining their graduate degrees, many foreign graduate students are leaving the United States to work in other countries. This is a vital loss to the U.S. economy and undermines America’s competitive edge.

A recent study by Vivek Wadhwa, executive-in-residence at Duke University, showed that the percentage of foreign nationals contributing to U.S. international patent applications -- the ones that give the U.S. a global edge -- increased 331 percent in 8 years. Allowing these foreign nationals to stay in the U.S. will immensely increase the country's edge in science and technology. According to a Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation study, “more than half of the foreign-born founders of U.S. technology and engineering businesses initially came to the United States to study as international students. They typically founded companies after working and residing in the United States for an average of 13 years.”

Immigrant entrepreneurs that come here as international students, start businesses that generate American jobs and tax revenue and maintain the competitive edge of the US in the global economy. According to another study by the foundation, "more than one million skilled immigrant workers, including scientists, engineers, doctors and researchers and their families, are competing for 120,000 permanent U.S. resident visas each year, creating a sizeable imbalance likely to fuel a “reverse brain-drain” with skilled workers returning to their home country.”

If American universities and American politicians want to help higher education and the economy, it’s time to move beyond just lobbying to get foreign students into the country for a few years – but to talk about why it makes sense to welcome many for their careers.


Gautham Pandiyan is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology at Duke University and is chair of the International Student Concerns Committee Chair of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students.


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