Like other members of President Obama’s Cabinet, I’ve spent the last few weeks traveling the country to discuss aspects of his comprehensive immigration reform proposal. On Wednesday, I was in Columbus, Ohio, to discuss “startup” visas and “stapling” green cards to diplomas with faculty, staff and students from Ohio State University, as well as local businesses and entrepreneurs.
I met some very impressive students, all of whom are facing uncertainty as they approach graduation. Matteo, an Italian doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, wants to use the skills he’s acquired through his graduate program to work in the United States’ growing energy industry. But because he needs a prospective company to apply for and get a specific visa, those prospects are in doubt. “For the first time, I’m running into visa issues. Companies are worried about whether I’ll be able to stay,” says Matteo. “And for small- and medium-sized businesses, they tell me they can’t even afford to deal with the visa process.”
Nihar will complete his Ph.D. in chemical engineering this semester, as well. He’s been lucky enough to find a company that will hire him, as long as its application for his visa goes through. Right now, because of caps on – and high demand for – these types of visas, even companies who have promised to hire job candidates may be subject to a lottery. Shuang, a computer engineering degree candidate from China, reminded everyone that even if she were lucky enough to get a visa, its parameters might prevent her from traveling home to see family, or attending an international conference in her field.
Every semester, American universities graduate scores of highly-educated and skilled international students (more than 10 percent of Ohio State’s student body is foreign-born). But because of the flaws in our immigration system, many of these students, even though they are eager to launch careers and entrepreneurial ventures in the U.S., are instead put on a plane to start companies and create businesses in their home countries. This is not a smart strategy for U.S. job creation and economic growth.
“I see so many of my students frustrated, anxious or just plain giving up because our immigration system is so hard,” said Chris Hammel, a physics professor at OSU. “It is hurting our ability to solve big problems here. Just imagine if OSU only recruited basketball players from Columbus, or from Ohio – think of all the amazing candidates we’d just be ignoring.”
The discussion also included Bill Tacon, from BioOhio, a coalition of bio-science companies, and Professor Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, a history professor at OSU. Both are naturalized American citizens and spoke passionately about ensuring the opportunities that have defined their careers are available to the students and young people they interact with every day.
Everyone around the table agreed that the current system, in which a limited number of high-skilled worker visas expire after three years, just doesn’t make sense. The temporary nature of this system keeps workers uncertain about their futures; the direct tie to an employer prevents them from changing companies or striking out on their own. That’s why President Obama has proposed “stapling” a green card to the diploma of those immigrants who have completed an advanced degree in STEM fields. So if you come to the U.S. and complete a master’s or a Ph.D. in science, technology, engineering or mathematics from a qualified American university, and you find employment here, we’ll help you stay.
The president’s proposal also includes a “startup visa” for job-creating entrepreneurs. It would allow foreign entrepreneurs who attract financing from U.S. investors or revenue from U.S. customers to start and grow their businesses in the United States. It also would allow them remain permanently if their companies grow further, create jobs for American workers and strengthen our economy.
The president’s immigration proposals are about building a more inclusive nation. But just as importantly, they are about ensuring that students earning qualifying graduate degrees at our universities stay here to contribute to our economy. They are about fostering innovation in growing high-tech sectors and giving entrepreneurs the chance to hire the workers they need to grow new businesses. And they are about giving more people from around the world a chance at the American Dream.
Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.