Suspending work permits for foreign graduates would be a terrible mistake for US economy
A college education is a major U.S. export that benefits both the universities and economy.
Tweets of travel bans reverberate through deserted terminals. Consequences of visa cancellations echo in desolate embassies. Murmurs of work permit suspensions linger in empty dorms. For the more than 1 million foreign students in the United States, this threatened suspension would be devastating. I know this because I used to be one. Being an immigration attorney also makes me acutely aware of the turmoil this would cause.
Every year, foreign students flock to America in droves. They come for the world-class education, the ground-breaking research and the multicultural environment. The post-graduation work permit is a further draw. It is this work permit — known as Optional Practical Training — that now appears to be on the Trump administration’s chopping block to reduce immigration.
In a recent letter to the president, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Chuck Grassley and Josh Hawley called for the suspension of OPT, claiming there is “no reason” to allow these foreign graduates to apply for work permits. Ethical considerations aside, there is a plethora of economic evidence to support retaining the OPT program for current and future international students.
International students typically pay top dollar for their American education, which can effectively help subsidize universities and domestic students. A writer for the The New York Times Magazine stresses that “over the past decade, the explosion in the number of international students has turned education, almost by stealth, into one of the most vital American exports.”
The value of this “education export” was highlighted in 2018 when academic colleges within University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign took the unprecedented step of buying insurance to protect against a sudden drop in Chinese enrollment due to a specific incident like a government visa ban. (No word on whether there was an exclusion for global pandemics.)
But the fiscal benefits foreign students bring to our shores go well beyond tuition payments. According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, international students contributed nearly $41 billion and created or supported 458,290 jobs in the U.S. economy during the 2018-19 academic year.
Foreign students enhance economy
International students are also a critical source of top talent and greatly enhance U.S. competitiveness. According to a 2019 report from the Niskanen Center, programs like OPT lead to increased innovation without costing U.S. workers their jobs or decreasing average wages.
Additionally, although immigrants constitute approximately 17% of the workforce, 55% of America’s startup companies valued $1 billion or more had at least one immigrant co-founder, according to a 2018 report. Of these startups, nearly a quarter were founded by immigrants who first came here as a student.
Further, immigrants started 33% of U.S. venture-backed companies that became publicly traded between 2006 and 2012.
International students, in particular, often study in science, technology, engineering and math — in the very areas that are most critical to future innovation and prosperity.
These aren’t just lofty statistics pulled from various studies; I have witnessed these success stories firsthand in my immigration law firm. In my 12 years of practicing, I’ve counseled thousands of foreign students, some of whom have founded startups while on OPT. My Turkish client, Mert Iseri, immediately comes to mind. While on OPT, Mert co-founded a company that literally saves lives by reducing hospital-acquired infections through its software and hardware systems. It has created dozens of jobs for U.S. workers.
Personally, after graduating from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 2007, I had the opportunity to work in an immigration law firm thanks to the OPT program. I’m now a naturalized U.S. citizen, I run my own law firm in Chicago and I employ a team of 10.
Don’t suspend this important program
Despite the historically high rates of international students, increases in visa denials, country-specific travel bans and the anti-immigrant policies of this administration have led to a decrease in enrollment by new students.
Foreign students have already begun to look elsewhere for their education, and eliminating the OPT program would further drive them away
Now is the time for America to embrace her foreign students. In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, we will need them more than ever. Suspending the OPT program would be a grave mistake, one that the United States cannot afford to make. International students will work alongside us to reinvigorate our economy and sustain us as a global leader in health care technology, medical and scientific research and many other fields, but only if we let them.
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