The time has come for comprehensive immigration reform. My father and his family immigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union — what is now Belarus — in order to find better opportunities and a more secure life. Like countless other immigrants over the course of American history, he worked hard, paid taxes and, eventually, became a US citizen. He passed on to me an appreciation of the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship. But under current U.S. immigration policy, people like my father have fewer chances of creating a better life for themselves and their families here.
With President Obama making immigration reform a key focus of his second term, and the issue attracting strong bipartisan support in the Senate and more recently the House (a bipartisan House group is expected to announce its proposal by Feb. 12), the time is right to reform the system.
From the perspective of a major research university with a large population of international students and a founding ideal of providing a place where “any person can find instruction in any study,” I see three issues related to immigration reform that are of particular importance and urgency: higher education’s responsibility to contribute to “brain circulation” globally; our need at home for graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and “DREAMers.”
First, brain circulation. American universities, including land-grant universities like Cornell, have a long history of training talented students from developing nations, who then return home to put their advanced skills to work as leaders in their own countries. The US may gain a competitive advantage when highly trained and educated people decide to stay in the US, but the home country loses the talented individuals it needs for progress, as well as the scarce resources often invested in students they have sent abroad.
The so-called “brain drain” has been a significant problem for many years, and some argue that making it easier for highly trained immigrants to come to the U.S. to work or to stay here after earning an advanced degree would put developing nations even farther behind. According to the International Organization for Migration, the African continent, with a population of nearly 850 million people, has only 20,000 scientists and engineers. According to an April 2012 article in The New Times-Kigali, at least a third of science and technology professionals from developing countries are currently working in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and the U.S., where they are more likely to gain professional recognition, enjoy more career opportunities and better pay. International graduates from China, countries that were part of the former Soviet Union and India, according to a report released by the National Science Foundation last fall, are returning to their home countries at very low rates (3.7 percent, 4.1 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively.)
Nonetheless, national origin should not determine economic destiny, and there is some evidence that a new model of “brain circulation” rather than “brain drain” is starting to emerge. In this model, skilled workers, regardless of national origin, move around the world more freely than before, to the benefit of all nations.
Although far from universal, there is evidence that some Western-educated tech entrepreneurs are returning home to set up enterprises in their home country or to work there. In the U.S., the highly educated children of immigrants — whose parents often worked so hard to be allowed to live and work in the U.S. — are moving back to the family homeland, particularly in countries undergoing rapid development like India, China, Russia, Brazil and, to some extent, South Africa. Until the brain circulation model becomes substantially more widespread, however, any comprehensive immigration reform must provide incentives for some of the talented individuals educated in the U.S. to return to their homelands to drive progress there.
The second major issue I see as critical to immigration reform is how to harness the advanced scientific and technical skills of some of the talented immigrants who are graduates of U.S. master’s and Ph.D. programs. At Cornell, nearly a fifth of our students — and more than 44 percent of our graduate students — are from other countries. Many would gladly stay in the U.S. after earning their degrees, contributing to the innovation and entrepreneurship that increasingly drive our economy — and their skills could be utilized without depriving American citizens of available jobs.
The Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of big-city mayors and business people co-chaired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has calculated that by 2018 there will be more than 230,000 advanced degree jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields that will not be filled even if every single new American STEM graduate finds a job. Far from taking jobs away from American citizens, allowing more talented international degree-holders to find work in the U.S. would help meet a significant national need.
The Department of Homeland Security has authorized Cornell’s applied sciences campus in New York City, including the Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute, to accept international students. As Cornell Tech develops, I expect that many graduate students will come from other nations, and because close relationships with high-tech companies and entrepreneurs are built into Cornell Tech’s curricula, they will be eager to continue the high-tech entrepreneurial ventures they began as graduate students by remaining in the U.S.
Highly trained foreign nationals who have earned advanced degrees in U.S. graduate programs promise to contribute to our economy in significant ways. An analysis released by the White House in May 2011 noted that immigrants had a major role in starting a quarter of the highest-growth companies — including Intel, Google, Yahoo and eBay — between 1990 and 2005, and these companies directly employ an estimated 220,000 Americans within the U.S. Other research indicates that 76 percent of patents from the top 10 patent-producing U.S. universities in 2011 had at least one foreign-born inventor.
Finally, DREAMers. Among the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants are many young people who were brought to this country as children through the decisions of others. They grew up as Americans, sometimes not even knowing their illegal status until they were young adults.
After Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, designed to open a pathway to citizenship for undocumented young adults who seek to attend college or serve in the military, President Obama, in June 2012, issued a memorandum that gave young undocumented immigrants the opportunity to avoid deportation and obtain work permits. Reports are that, since the application process opened last August, as many as 5,000 young people a day have applied, and reportedly no eligible applicant has been turned down. But the pathway to citizenship is still closed to these young people, as, in many instances, is the opportunity to benefit from in-state tuition and federal and state financial aid programs that would make college attendance more affordable. We may need to rethink our approaches to financial aid in ways that are sensitive to undocumented students’ new legal status.
Making the provisions of the DREAM Act part of comprehensive immigration reform will give the undocumented children of illegal immigrants, some of whom are among America’s most talented and promising students, a chance to become productive, tax-paying citizens. And that will be good, not just for the young people who stand to benefit, but for the nation as a whole. In 2010 the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the DREAM Act would reduce the budget deficit by $1.4 billion over 10 years because of increased tax revenues. More recent estimates by the Partnership for a New American Economy suggest that “giving DREAMers an incentive to pursue college and allowing them to work here legally will add 1.4 million jobs and generate $329 billion in economic activity over the next 20 years.”
As Congress and the White House move forward with immigration reform this year, I hope they will keep in mind the needs of our DREAMers, the potential of the highly trained scientists and engineers from other lands to contribute to America’s competitiveness and our broader responsibilities to build capacity elsewhere in the world until a true “brain circulation” model becomes a reality.
David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at email@example.com. From David appears bi-monthly this semester.