Op-Ed: Immigration reforms can benefit international students and their universities

Saturday, December 12, 2020 - 11:36pm

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The United States’ immigration policy has been streaming into the nation’s conscience the past four years and an encore is expected during the next four as well. The Biden administration will likely seek to make dramatic changes to immigration policy while maneuvering around congressional challenges — similar to how the Trump administration handled the issue. Many international students in the United States will remain on edge, as many policy changes have a direct and palpable impact on their livelihoods. These students often enjoy American universities as they provide opportunities to connect with global leaders in research and industry while obtaining mentorship from staff and faculty, and work authorizations in H-1B and L-1 visas can ultimately lead to U.S. citizenship.

The advantages of the United States’ visa programs are actually twofold. American students and universities also benefit from international students, as they create vibrant and diverse campuses, present cross-cultural experiences and increase awareness of international issues. They help prepare American students for the global job market while potentially building business relationships that last after graduation. Moreover, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students contributed $44.7 billion to the national economy in 2018.

From a survey conducted by Studyportals, 62% of international student respondents indicated that it is very important for them to work in the country after graduation. So, to ultimately enhance benefits for both international students and U.S. college campuses, advocates must implore the next administration to reform immigration policy in ways that allow visa work authorization to become more attainable for new graduates. Prospective international students want assurance that they can seamlessly attain employment in the United States within their fields of study. Such reform within the H-1B visa program can make a significant difference. American companies will seek technological talent once they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic as they will have a stronger desire for digital transformation programs and IT modernization; a large portion of workers within IT staffing and consulting firms hold H-1B visas. Graduating international students who seek H-1B visas will benefit from an increased number of available H-1B visas each year. 

Unfortunately, only a set amount of H-1B visas are issued each year for new applications. Registered candidates are chosen through a lottery process and the candidates with selected registrations have the opportunity to apply for an H-1B visa. Country limits on issued H-1Bs may be removed by the Biden administration as well. Through administrative instead of legislative means, the administration can improve H-1B approval rates and give deference to H-1B applications that seek to extend previously approved H-1Bs. Further, the Department of Homeland Security should avoid creating a more restrictive definition of “specialty occupation.” This term serves as one of the key ways of deciding what job positions are eligible for an H-1B visa. This visa is only given when the offered job requires a theoretical and practical application of highly specialized knowledge that can only be gained from a bachelor’s degree or higher in a specific specialty. 

International students can also benefit from their visa durations. A recent proposal seeks to limit student visas to two-year or four-year periods. At the moment, international students are allowed to stay in the United States for a time period called “duration of status.” Essentially, they can remain in the country as long as they are pursuing their degrees or engaging in authorized training which is an important part of their academic curriculums. The proposal would force many international students to reapply for their student visas if they happen to switch majors or something occurs which causes a delay, such as a pandemic. The reapplication processes will bring additional expenses, further delays in their education and may cause difficulty with obtaining internships as they wait for visa approval. Maintaining the “duration of status” time frame will assure international students that they will be able to complete their studies in the United States without interruption. 

After walking across graduation stages, international students often bring U.S. businesses the necessary skills and expertise in fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They also grow the U.S. economy while playing an important role in building dynamic communities. Developing immigration policies that ultimately attract and retain international students can create ‘win-win’ outcomes across the board.

Aaron Kochenderfer is an immigration attorney at Fakhoury Global Immigration, USA PC, a comprehensive business immigration law firm in the greater Detroit area. In addition, Mr. Kochenderfer is an active contributor to Global Detroit initiatives that assist international students with career-building and career exploration. He can be reached at aaronk@employmentimmigration.com


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