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Jill on the Hill: decision time – int’l student choices will shape the nation’s future

May 1 is National Decision Day in the United States, and students across the globe are making final decisions about where to enrol next fall.

Congress needs to "modernise" its immigration policy to permit dual intent for international students, says Jill Welch. Photo: pexels

"The discoveries that one brilliant Indian student made decades ago are what made it possible for us to pivot to online connections during the pandemic"

For international students, two factors weigh heavily in where they choose to invest in their future. Firstly, student visa issuance and secondly, work opportunities.

Knowing this, many countries have adapted their immigration and labour policies to compete for these bright minds. Elected officials in Washington, D.C. who want to keep the US competitive should seriously consider doing the same.

Students’ choices about where they study will have long-lasting implications, not just for them and their families, but for which country comes out on top in the global competition for talent in the innovation economy.

It’s no secret that international students, and immigrants in general, have propelled the US economy forward. One frequently cited report by the National Foundation for American Policy notes that immigrants have launched more than half of America’s startup companies, valued at $1 billion or more, and that almost 80% of these “unicorn” companies have an immigrant founder or executive leader.

“This country, unlike Canada, the UK, and Australia, still imposes stringent and outdated rules on students”

Notably, one in four of those founders first came to America as an international student.

And yet this country, unlike Canada, the UK, and Australia, still imposes stringent and outdated rules on students that make it more difficult to secure visas to study here, and preclude them from transitioning into a more permanent immigration status after graduation. Instead, US immigration policy enacted more than a half-century ago requires that their intent should be to depart immediately upon graduation. Any other outcome requires navigation of a complex and uncertain system of workarounds.

This chart compares the first step in an immigration pathway: duration of post-graduation work rights across several countries. Photo: IDP

It’s time for Congress to modernise this policy to permit dual intent for international students applying for F-1 visas to attend US colleges and universities, a concept that is already available in other nonimmigrant categories, and to provide more green cards for graduates of our higher education institutions.

Today’s students expect choice and flexibility, and countries that don’t meet those needs will experience the loss in global economic leadership.

This chart shows how Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK out-compete the United States in student perceptions of post-study work opportunities. Photo: IDP

Consider this example: When scientist Erdahl Arikan was unable to secure a visa and funding to stay in the US and returned to his “residence abroad” in Turkey (as stipulated by America’s archaic immigration law), he decided to take his big idea to China: a breakthrough innovation that eventually helped China take the lead in 5G technology.

Dr. Graham Allison of Harvard Kennedy School and Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, noted in a 2022 Foreign Policy article that the Chinese tech company Huawei now holds 10 times more of the patents related to Arikan’s innovation than its nearest competitor and has produced a third of the global 5G infrastructure, while US companies aren’t even meaningfully in the race.

“Had the United States been able to retain Arikan – simply by allowing him to stay in the country instead of making his visa contingent on immediately finding a sponsor for his work – this history might well have been different,” Allison and Schmidt argued.

The opportunity costs of outdated policy are also evident when we look at the significant contributions of those who have managed to overcome barriers to remain in the US.

To cite just one example of a student who successfully navigated our complex immigration system and was able to contribute his imagination to the US economy: The research that led to the video technology we came to rely on during the pandemic was led by Nasir Ahmed, a brilliant Indian student who studied at the University of New Mexico in the 1960s. The discoveries he made decades ago are what made it possible for us to pivot to online connections during the pandemic.

Add to these stories the countless other discoveries and innovations that international students, scientists and immigrants have helped develop, including the first two coronavirus vaccines in use in the US, and the case builds for why the US government must be more proactive in maximising the ability of international students who come to our colleges and universities to live and work here after they complete their studies.

Although Congress has yet to pass legislation that would accomplish this, the Biden-Harris administration has taken concrete steps, within the constraints of current US law. Building on the Joint Statement of Principles on International Education, the US State Department has worked to reduce visa barriers for students seeking to study in the US and has extended academic training opportunities for J-1s in STEM fields.

US colleges and universities work hard to attract and welcome international students to their campuses. It’s time for Congress to act to make it easier for America to benefit long-term from those efforts. Our shared future depends on it.

About the author: This is the first article in a series from Jill Welch. Jill is an international education policy expert with more than two decades serving in senior policy leadership positions both inside and outside of government, including the Hill, the Institute of International Education, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the U.S. Institute of Peace. She currently serves as Principal of  leads Out of Many, One, a consulting practice supporting nonprofit organisations in achieving inclusive, progressive, and bold goals that advance the democratic values on which the United States was founded. She also serves as Senior Policy Advisor for the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration


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