In an era of divided politics, Americans across the political spectrum agree our immigration system is badly broken. Last week, the Trump administration backed new legislation that would aim to fix it by transitioning the United States to a skills-based immigration system. This approach falls far short of what is needed.
Over a decade, the proposal would halve the number of legal immigrants admitted to the United States, including refugees seeking the freedom and opportunity that many of us take for granted. This isn’t consistent with our nation’s history or its needs. The legislation also fails to address the biggest problem with employment-based visas: There simply aren’t enough green cards available. If we’re going to tackle this problem, we have to increase the opportunities available to skilled immigrants who are vital to ensuring America’s workforce and businesses are the world’s most productive and competitive.
Each year, nearly 1 million of the brightest minds from across the world study at U.S. colleges and universities to advance their skills. Although international students represent just 5 percent of all college students, they make tremendous contributions to American college campuses and enrich the educational environment for all students.
Many of these students choose to study highly technical fields such as those in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. Often, they earn graduate and doctoral degrees that distinguish them as experts in their field. International students earn 57 percent of engineering doctoral degrees and 53 percent of computer and information science doctoral degrees granted by U.S. universities. Some are able to take advantage of the limited number of green cards available, but many more are forced to contribute their talents to other countries — which are eager to take advantage of our inability to modernize our immigration laws.
The bill unveiled last week doesn’t offer the solutions we need. The measure would do nothing to address an acute but persistent shortage of skilled workers that is only growing more urgent. Applications for H-1B visas, which allow employers to fill specialty positions with skilled workers, arrived by the truckload this year. There were more than twice as many applicants as there are H-1B visas to fill shortages. Many employers are left with unfillable job vacancies — not because there isn’t a pool of skilled workers, but because misguided immigration policies severely restrict their access to it.
Our economy suffers as a result. Forty percent of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Immigrants are twice as likely to start new businesses and they represent large and growing share of all entrepreneurs. And they’re more likely to be in the labor force. By limiting access to skilled workers, we’re needlessly constraining the economy.
But immigrants’ contributions are hardly just economic. On campus, some of the world’s greatest minds are in labs discover pioneering innovations that help find cures to once-fatal illnesses and debilitating diseases. Immigrant engineers are key to building next-generation infrastructure. And immigrants help enrich our culture. They enhance every aspect of American life.
More skilled immigrants want to add to these contributions. American universities are the envy of the world, drawing students from across the world to study in the United States. International students aren’t just pursuing an education here; they want to build a career and life here too. More than anything, they want a chance to chase the American Dream.
Still, we lack a sensible immigration system that allows them to do exactly that and we’re worse off as a result. America’s most prized export shouldn’t be the international students who attend U.S. universities, only to be forced to move home after graduation because a broken immigration system prevents them from driving innovations, building businesses and creating jobs right here in the United States.
Peter McPherson is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. He is president emeritus of Michigan State University.