Keep the Brightest at Home

Harvard should take an active stance on immigration policy for its students and the country

Sabrina Ghouse

Homo Economicus

Last month, a bipartisan group of four senators introduced a bill that, if passed, could impact the lives of many in the Harvard College community.

The Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, unveiled on the same day that President Obama proposed a framework for comprehensive immigration reform, aims to increase the number of work visas given to foreign nationals with advanced degrees from 65,000 to 115,000. It also exempts holders of advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the annual cap on green cards.

To start, the bill is plain good economics for the country. It is an indisputable fact that technology and human capital drive long-term economic growth. However, despite the United States’ dominance in high tech industries, the country’s education system falls behind other nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in STEM graduates. This gap between the supply and demand of highly skilled workers is filled by foreign workers, two-thirds of whom are STEM graduates. Before the education system can satisfy the labor market’s demand, the bill will, as the senators put it in a press release, “[ensure] the United States can maintain its competitiveness in the global economy” by keeping foreign talent in competitive fields.

The bill would also have tremendous effects on the personal lives of international students at Harvard. Under the current immigration laws, international students make large sacrifices in their careers. Since work visas typically cost employers more than $5,000 and have a high rate of rejection, only the largest and most resourceful corporations can afford to hire international students. As a result, international students with technical skills that are valuable to the economy often resort to taking offers in finance and consulting rather than with the engineering start-ups that their skills are more suited for. Some advanced degree holders are effectively enslaved by their employers, as their legal residence in the U.S. depends on their employment. Giving foreign advanced degree holders more flexibility in options will free them from this unbalanced employment relation and allow them to fully use their scarce and desired skills in the economy.

Despite the great benefits of increasing visas and lifting the green card cap for advanced degree holders, Senate Democrats rejected a bill with similar intent after it passed the House vote. The disagreement was over another part of the bill that aimed to eliminate a lottery visa program, which randomly selects the same number of visa applicants from countries with low immigration rates to ensure a diversity of new Americans. The bill also drew official opposition from the White House for not meeting the objectives of President Obama’s comprehensive immigration reform plan. Even though there was no opposition from either party to keeping more foreign advanced degree holders in the country, this sensible bill fell apart in the midst of partisan bickering.

The failure of the previous bill showed a lack of commitment to this issue by both parties. This is perhaps because foreign students, with no votes or resources for lobbying, hold no power in national politics. The most vocal champions of immigration reform for skilled workers have been technology companies in dire need of employees. The list of beneficiaries, however, would extend far beyond the giants of Silicon Valley. Harvard is home to no fewer than 4,400 international students, who make up 20 percent of the student population. For many international students, staying in the U.S. after graduation is a viable and often desired choice. However, under current immigration laws, international students will be denied entry if they declare an interest in staying in the country after graduation. Such schizophrenic bureaucracy can potentially turn away many capable students, who would make Harvard a more diverse place, both academically and culturally. These international students, who leave familiar environments to seek academic opportunities, already possess the intelligence and courage that characterize successful entrepreneurs. If these students stay in the country more often, they will surely contribute to the reputation and success of the University in the long term.

The Harvard community has been an advocate of social progress for the least emancipated members of society. It is time that Harvard takes an active stance on immigration policy to ensure a more stable future for its students who do not (yet) have the right to vote. With the support of Harvard and other educational institutions, politicians will hopefully take these issues more seriously. With friendlier policies in Washington and a public reputation as a place that cares for its international students, Harvard could be an even more attractive place for the world’s brightest.

Jonathan Z. Zhou ’14 is an applied mathematics concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.