International Students and the U.S. Workforce

By Wiha Powell

In his speech on immigration reform in El Paso, Texas, President Obama stated, “We provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities. But then our law discourages them from using those skills to start a business or a new industry here in the United States.” The President then went on to say, “In a global marketplace, we need all the talent we can attract… we don’t want the next Intel or the next Google to be created in China or India. We want those companies and jobs to take root here.”

Every year the United States opens its door to thousands of international students who dream of receiving an education from one of the nation’s top universities. In order for an international student to attend our universities they need to first acquire an F1 (student) visa. To obtain an F1-visa, international students must first meet the residency requirement of their country, and agree to return upon completion of their studies; in this case, they need to prove that they have ties to their home country, e.g., job offer letter after completion of studies, assets, bank accounts or family. Moreover, they must be enrolled on a fulltime basis and provide sufficient financial evidence to fund their studies.

Also, it may be possible for an international student to convert his/her visa to a temporary work visa upon completion of his/her studies through the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. This program allows international students, upon graduation, to stay in the United States for up to twelve months to work in their field of study.

The Bush Administration made it possible for some foreign graduates who majored in fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM-designated degree programs) to stay for an additional seventeen months, totaling twenty-nine months of OPT. This enables a lucky few to switch over to an H-1B (work) visa with sponsorship from their employer.

Currently, the Obama administration is expanding the STEM- designated degree programs’ list to include more majors that are of interest to the United States such as soil microbiology, video graphics and special effects, neuroscience, medical informatics and pharmaceutics, and drug design. With this expansion, the Obama administration wishes to increase the pool of international students who would be eligible for the seventeen-month OPT extension, which will provide more international graduates the opportunity to work in the U.S. as oppose to leaving and being employed by our foreign competitors.

This expansion and extension according to the Obama Administration will be beneficial to the United States economy because it will allow these international graduates to enter into the workforce with skills such as engineering, technology, computer science, neuroscience, etc., which are currently in demand, and in hopes that these international graduates will secure long-term jobs in the U.S. This will in turn create new industries, therefore creating new jobs and help the economy to grow.

Opponents are already apprehensive and hesitant about the extension of the OPT and the expansion of the STEM-Designated Degree Programs’ list. They argue that this will raise concerns and make U.S. citizens who are job seekers uneasy and doubtful about competing against these brainy high-tech international graduates in this critical time of high unemployment.

According to Obama, in “recent years,” one quarter of high-tech startups in the United States were founded by immigrants, creating 200,000 U.S. jobs.

Surprisingly, international students do make up for a considerable amount of students who study science, technology, engineering and math in our universities today. According to the National Science Foundation of the science and engineering graduates between 2000 and 2009, 3 out of 10 graduates were temporary visa holders. Also, between 2000 and 2009 approximately 30% of science and engineering students were temporary visa holders, with a high of 32% in 2002.

However, the percentage of international students who get the opportunity to switch from an F-1 visa to an H1-B visa and ultimately receive a green card is unknown. Most recently, the Obama administration announced that it is working on making the H1-B visa more accessible to job-creators and entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, in this uncertain economic time employers are still seeking talented and skilled individuals. Therefore, instead of looking elsewhere, it would be more beneficial to have these highly skilled individuals stay in the U.S. and eventually securing long-term jobs rather than losing them to our competitors overseas.

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