Let Immigrant Graduates Stay in the U.S.

Let Immigrant Graduates Stay in the U.S.

This month, college students around the country will return to their campuses and begin classes. While the pressures of college — the deep debt burden, the fear of finding a job post-graduation — linger for all students, foreign students face a scarier challenge: Their visas will soon expire.

Student visas expire just 60 days after graduation, which leaves students little time to apply for jobs and get new visas. And one of the best options these students have — a rule allowing graduates in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) to work as long as 29 months on a student visa — is at risk, thanks to a recent ruling by a district judge.

It’s economically destructive to identify the world’s best and brightest students, equip them with valuable skills at American universities, and then disallow them from using those skills to energize the U.S. economy. Lawmakers should extend the grace period for all graduating foreign students to find jobs and opportunities.

Each year, more than 800,000 foreign students attend American universities. China, India, and South Korea send the most students. Foreign graduates have spent four years at American universities — they are bright-eyed Millennials looking to make their mark on the world. They are neither criminals nor freeloaders on the public dole. In fact, the U.S. Department of Commerce finds that in the 2013-14 school year, international students contributed over $27 billion to the U.S. economy. But immigration policy offers these graduates a limited range of options.

In rare cases, exceptional students who are considered highly skilled and who have employers willing to sponsor and hire them can apply for the H-1B visa. But only 65,000 such visas are offered per year. In 2014, immigration services received 172,500 applications in less than a week and closed applications. The chances of getting an H-1B visa are dismally low.

Foreign students in graduate programs can apply for one of 20,000 annual special visas in the high-skilled category. The chances of securing such visas are higher, but undergraduates, the vast majority of foreign students, are ineligible for this opportunity.

Foreign students who remain in the U.S. 60 days after graduation fall out of status. They are now considered part of the undocumented-immigrant population. In order to get a job, they have to leave the U.S., face overstay penalties, and return with a new work authorization. This process is grueling, bureaucratic, and lengthy.

The final and most popular option is for students to apply for the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which authorizes graduates to work for a year. As of last year, about 100,000 students were enrolled. Unlike the H-1B, OPT allows workers to switch employers, providing much-needed flexibility for graduates who may not be entirely sure what fields they want to work in.

But OPT is now in flux. In 2008, President Bush extended eligibility to STEM graduates from 12 to 29 months. In 2012, President Obama approved more fields of study for extension. But in 2014, a Washington Alliance of Technology Workers suit against the Department of Homeland Security challenged the STEM extension. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle threw out the 2008 rule extending OPT, citing violation of an administrative rule. Fortunately, STEM graduates can still apply for the extension until February 12, 2016, and DHS will likely offer another extension by then.

In her decision, Judge Ellen Huvelle argued that an influx of computer programmers from OPT would likely depress the wages of the plaintiffs and threaten their job security. But Judge Huvelle has the economics wrong. My Niskanen Center colleague Dave Bier has found that higher immigrant employment is associated with lower unemployment in the computer and technology sectors. Moreover, he found that the entrance of a single foreign-born worker in the engineering and computer industries is associated with an increase of nearly two jobs in those industries. An influx of foreign STEM students is a plus to the American economy.

That recent court decision provides yet another reason for policymakers to reform the student-visa program. Here’s what should happen:

First, foreign students should be given more than 60 days to find work. If lawmakers want to invest in America’s economic future, they should ensure that foreign-born college graduates remain in the United States and not take their talents elsewhere.

Second, visas for highly educated foreign students in graduate programs should increase from the current cap of 20,000. Graduate students contribute significantly to the American economy, and more foreign students study STEM and business fields than native-born students. They will be a driving force in creating new jobs and promoting economic growth in the United States if they are allowed to call America home.

Third, OPT extensions should continue for STEM undergraduates, and non-STEM graduates should be eligible for extensions as well.

As Congress returns from recess, discussion of student-visa policy should commence. Congress has depleted the pool of educated and skilled labor in the U.S. by offering only 60 days for foreign students to find jobs after graduation. Instead of encouraging foreign students to stay and contribute, the U.S. government kicks them out.

Current student-visa policy hurts American competitiveness. If lawmakers can’t see that, perhaps they should be the ones going back to school.

Matthew La Corte is an immigration research policy analyst for the Niskanen Center, a free market think tank committed to bipartisan policy solutions in Washington, D.C.

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