Science Careers Blog

October 6, 2011

"Staple a Green Card" to Every Diploma? Not So Fast, House Hearing Says.

The contentious issue of high-skill immigration returned to Capitol Hill again today at a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement.  Unlike the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on immigration held in July, which covered a range of topics, this one focused on a single question: "STEM the Tide: Should America Try to Prevent an Exodus of Foreign Graduates of U.S. Universities with Advanced Science Degrees?"

The idea of "stapling a green card" to the diploma of every foreign science and engineering graduate has gotten a lot of influential support lately.  This hearing, however, highlighted a number of weaknesses with such a policy. 

 A "major concern," according to Barmak Nassirian, Associate Executive Director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, is "the likely manner in which such policy changes could affect the quality and integrity of educational credentials."   He cited "the unintended ways in which individuals may seek to manipulate the new policy to their advantage, the threat posed by unscrupulous providers of credentials, and the manner in which even legitimate institutions may be induced to take advantage of the new immigration incentives."

Among the issues that must be addressed in designing any such plan are defining which fields would count as STEM disciplines -- a far trickier and more contentious task than it initially appears, Nassirian cautioned.  Second, it is vital to "prevent diploma mills and unscrupulous schools from cashing in on the new benefits.  Legal U.S. residency is an exceptionally valuable benefit and awarding it on the basis of credentials would predictably attract questionable schools.  There is already ample evidence of this in the student visa area."  

He also noted the "distinct possibility that the rich immigration incentive may result in displacement of qualified American students and/or the overproduction of advanced degrees" and urged care that "the presence and participation of foreign nationals in graduate STEM programs does not come at the expense of American students."

The United States already has an large domestic supply of STEM talent, testified B. Lindsay Lowell, Director of Policy Studies at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Immigration. Increasing the supply of potential STEM workers by admitting large numbers of foreigners results in lower wages and discourages able Americans from pursuing STEM careers, he continued.  "The domestic student pipeline isn't broken," he said in prepared testimony.  "While there are specific fields in which we observe hiring (demand) outpacing supply, this tends to be short-lived and as supply is surprisingly responsive."  He cited as an example the rapid recent doubling in the number of domestic graduates in petroleum engineering in response to a jump in salaries. The domestic STEM pipeline "is reasonably strong even if it improved."  

Furthermore, "the S&E [science and engineering] labor market is not 'tight'....S&E wages lag 'alternative' professional jobs" that also attract able young Americans, such as law, medicine and finance, his testimony continued.  In addition, admitting large numbers of foreigners does not guarantee getting the so-called "best and brightest" because real innovative talent is rare.

"America's competitive advantage is best served by spurring domestic demand," he continued.  "It is not a good idea to create new visas or expanded caps, escalating caps or cap exemptions.  Nor is it a good idea to award automatic greencards [sic] which has the additional downside of creating the wrong incentives to, for example, pursue specialized education in the United States."

As is usual at immigration discussions, a representative of the technology industry advocated admitting larger numbers of immigrants with graduate degrees in STEM fields.  In addition, Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, presented data indicating that many more foreign students than in the past now intend to return to their home countries rather than planning to remain in the United States.    

Speaking on behalf of the Semiconductor Industry Association, Darla Whittaker, Senior Vice President for Worldwide Human Resources at Texas Industries, stated in her prepared testimony, "While unemployment is generally high in the U.S., in engineering, it is not.  Recent Labor Department statistics place the unemployment rate for electrical and electronics engineers at 3.7%.  The competition for STEM talent is tight."  As we have previously reported, however, the "the unemployment rate for college graduates when the enconomy is at full-employment is approximately 2.2%," a considerably lower figure, according to information given by Ron Hira, professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, to Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) after the Senate Hearing.

Judiciary Committee chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) also expressed concern.   In a statement he commented that "A visa 'pot of gold' could create an incentive for schools to aim solely to attract tuition paying foreign students with the lure of a green card."   Citing the experience of Australia, he warned that "this is not a hypothetic concern."  In that country, he said, quoting a study, "the alacrity with which Australia's universities would set up courses designed to attract international students looking for the cheapest and easiest ways to obtain qualifications in occupations that could lead to permanent residence" has undermined universities' credibility. The same, he argued, could happen here.

But, Smith pointed out, "sending all graduates home and automatically issuing visas to students are not the only options available."  So it doesn't look like the powerful House Judiciary Committee will be getting out the stapler just yet.  Stay tuned for further developments.

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