Higher Ed Leaders Should Keep Engaging on Immigration

Efforts to undo harmful recent policies and practices are necessary and important, but not sufficient, argue Louis Caldera, Nancy Cantor and Alan W. Cramb.

March 22, 2021
 
 
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As co-chairs of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, we have been proud to witness how higher education leaders and institutions have engaged on immigration policy debates in recent years. It reflects the growing recognition that our campuses and communities rely on and are enriched by the contributions of immigrant and international students.

The Biden administration’s early array of executive actions on immigration have been commendable, including rescinding the travel bans, protecting and fortifying the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and reviewing and reducing barriers that block international student alumni of colleges and universities in the United States from continuing to stay and contribute to the country.

The recently introduced U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, along with the reintroduced bipartisan Senate Dream Act and the passage of the House American Dream and Promise Act last week, are even more important steps in the right direction. Efforts to undo and unwind harmful recent policies and practices are necessary and important but not sufficient. Now is the time to go further and to deliver on a host of immigration policy reforms that will move forward our student populations and our communities, while advancing the core mission of our institutions. Now is the time for higher education leaders to continue to engage and speak out on such topics, in full recognition that getting immigration policy right at the local, state and federal level is essential for the future of higher education and our national competitiveness.

As leaders of both public and private institutions, we have witnessed how the DACA program has transformed lives and strengthened campuses and workplaces of all sizes. Since its start in 2012, DACA has afforded new protections and opportunities to more than 800,000 immigrant youth. Yet in recent years, as the future of DACA has been imperiled, those students’ lives have been thrown into upheaval and their futures made uncertain. Even now, DACA faces continued legal challenges, and the program does not cover many undocumented youth who have grown up and been educated in communities across our nation. Today, more than 425,000 undocumented students are enrolled in higher education, but less than half have DACA or are eligible for the DACA program. And close to 100,000 Dreamers graduate from high school annually.

The time is long overdue to finally deliver an accessible road to citizenship for the entire Dreamer population, and higher education leaders and voices are well equipped to play a major role in such advocacy. Moving quickly on Dreamers’ citizenship will benefit all of us and build faith and momentum toward broader modernization of our immigration system and reforms to encompass families, essential workers, farmworkers, those with temporary protected status and other longtime residents in the United States.

A tour through the new Higher Ed Immigration Portal -- a one-stop digital resource for state and federal data and resources about DACA, undocumented, international and refugee students -- offers a reminder of how much our campuses and country are strengthened through equitable and accessible policies that open the doors of opportunity to these students. The portal will track key state higher education access and affordability policies on in-state tuition and financial aid, driver licenses, and professional and occupational licensure -- recognizing that each supports social mobility, innovation and, ultimately, economic competitiveness.

The portal also highlights immigrant-origin and international student enrollments by state, showing that, over all, nearly one of every three students in higher education is a first- or second-generation immigrant or international student. Meanwhile, students from immigrant families accounted for nearly 60 percent of the growth of all domestic students in U.S. colleges and universities between 2000 and 2018, and they grew at a much faster rate than other students.

International students’ global perspectives benefit classrooms and campuses, while providing tangible economic contributions to our communities. International students make up only 5 percent of total higher education enrollment in the United States -- approximately 3 percent at the undergraduate level and 12 percent at the graduate level. But despite their relatively small proportions, they have a large and positive impact on American higher education, local communities and states. (Check out your proportion by state here on the new portal.) Research shows the presence of international graduate students actually increases the enrollment of domestic students, with a gain in every 10 international graduate students associated with an increase in domestic students -- and with no adverse effects on the enrollment of American students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Modernization of our immigration system should recognize that the United States will be best served if international students have the opportunity to come to our nation to study, engage in research and build their careers here. International researchers, scientists and medical providers have been essential workers on the front lines of battling the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the past year. Now, as we pursue policies to jump-start our economy, we need to make it easier for these international students and alumni to study in this country, contribute to regional innovation and economic growth, and help us meet our pressing community health needs.

Addressing these issues, starting with passing the proposed legislation, will not only expand opportunities for talented young people but also help sustain the economic growth and world-class higher education system that all Americans rely on.

It’s time to match immigration policy to the promise of America’s future.

Bio

Louis Caldera is distinguished adjunct professor of law and senior affiliate in the program of law and government at American University. Nancy Cantor is Chancellor of Rutgers University -- Newark. Alan W. Cramb is president of Illinois Institute of Technology. All three are co-chairs of the steering committee of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

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