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“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 can…be improved.”  
“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.
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.

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.