The Senate-approved approach to immigration reform could improve the country’s competitiveness by allowing green cards for STEM master’s graduates, and it would also create a pathway to citizenship for students brought to this country illegally as children.
And though the Republican controlled House is likely to produce its own, narrower immigration reform bill, the Senate bill is seen as a symbolic step forward in the higher ed community.
Bill S.744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, passed in the Senate in late June with bipartisan support. The DREAM Act provision would create an expedited 5-year pathway to citizenship for those who attend a U.S. university or who serve in the military.
It would be a major step for the 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools each year and may plan to go to college, says Craig Lindwarm, assistant director for international issues, congressional, and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
“This is providing them an opportunity they deserve,” he says. “These students are in the country through no fault of their own. They are American in every way, just not on paper. This is a matter of fairness to students who have done no wrong.”
Under the bill, students who graduate with a master’s in a STEM field or with a PhD in any field would be fast tracked for receiving a green card.
“You would essentially graduate with a green card stapled to your diploma,” says Lindwarm. “That’s a game changer for the higher ed community. For many years, we’ve lamented training the best and brightest from around the world in STEM and then having to watch these students return to their home countries, and then compete against us, for no reason other than we haven’t given them an opportunity to stay here. It’s a self defeating policy.”
Victor C. Johnson, senior advisor for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, says that in terms of political reality, the bill is a good one but that more reform is needed. “I would make the path to citizenship shorter and less onerous and expensive.” He suggests:
- creating a direct path to green cards for any foreign student, not just STEM graduates;
- providing more employment opportunities for international students and spouses;
- eliminating the new $100 fee that the bill would impose on student visa applicants;
- expanding dual intent to include all students, meaning a person who is in the U.S. with a visa can also pursue a green card; and
- allowing nonimmigrants to pursue short-term study opportunities on tourist visas.