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David J. Skorton

David J. Skorton

Posted: February 24, 2011 01:51 PM

When my father, his parents and siblings left western Russia (now Belarus) for the United States, amidst a torrent of other immigrants attracted by the promise of our shores, he took it for granted that through hard work, adherence to the law, and an earnest desire to become a naturalized American citizen, he would create a better life for himself and his children and contribute to the advancement of this country. Although he never attended college, he was convinced that higher education was a ticket to success for the next generation. My own life and the lives of countless other first-generation Americans have proven him right.

But early in the 21st century, we are losing our understanding and appreciation of immigration as an integral part of the American Dream. Why have immigration issues become so politically radioactive? The real and growing security risks to our nation and the economic competition we face, particularly from emerging economies, color our perception. Yet, despite the incendiary rhetoric about immigration, it has always been true -- and is still true -- that the benefits of immigration significantly outweigh the risks. For just one example, with an aging population, we face the prospect of a labor force that is too small. Immigrants can help.

We must, therefore, keep our nation accessible to the world by developing comprehensive immigration reform that deals with our physical and economic security, the realities of our growing immigrant population, and our national workforce needs. One example of such an approach is that being discussed by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The issues are broad and complex, but a key part of immigration reform must be focused on international students and scholars at American colleges and universities.

In the 20th century, there was a clear national emphasis on making sure that the best minds trained -- at least in part -- at American universities and then returned to their home countries. The idea was that American-educated foreign nationals would become leaders in their own countries, bringing back an appreciation and understanding of the U.S. that would benefit us both politically and economically. We wanted bright international students to come and enroll in our undergraduate and, especially, graduate programs.

And come they did: these excellent students were successful in education and research, contributing to robust, innovation-based economic growth. And when they returned to their own countries -- from Western Europe to the Far East to Iran -- they often attained positions of leadership in education, government and industry and stayed connected, scientifically, culturally, and emotionally, to the U.S.

Lately, though, our views on international students have become more complex. On the one hand, some argue that we should let international students remain in America to contribute to the advancement of our economy. After all, we could use their talent and ideas. As scholar and columnist Vivek Wadhwa noted in a speech this week, foreign nationals file a quarter of all patent applications in this country, and from 1995 to 2005, 25 percent of all start-up companies had at least one immigrant founder. On the other hand, some fear that immigrants will take jobs away from Americans and bring "un-American" beliefs and behaviors to our shores. Recently, and especially after 9/11, it has been more difficult for international scholars to come -- or to stay -- in the U.S.

We should be working toward the adoption of comprehensive immigration reform tailored to the economic, political, social, cultural and scientific realities of a world in which ideas and jobs more and more easily transcend borders. What is needed is a set of immigration policies that gives us the best of both worlds -- policies flexible enough to offer green cards to talented individuals who want to stay, while encouraging others to return home with some of the best education we have to offer and the potential to make a lasting difference in the world. As recent events in the Middle East have demonstrated, no government, no matter how repressive, can inhibit the flow of ideas. The new approach to immigration policy must recognize the need for knowledge workers, as well as ideas, to move more easily back and forth between countries.

By making it so difficult for so many bright international students and scholars to remain in America, we are fostering a reverse brain drain of dizzying proportions and helping our competition. Already, partly because of our immigration policies, the U.S. is no longer always the top choice for students from Asia when they apply to graduate school in science and engineering. We are at risk of having both a decline in the number of international students that matriculate, which will affect our capacity to conduct research in American universities, and a decline in the quality of the graduate students, which will affect the impact of that research.

It is in our national interest to make some changes -- and make them now. Although colleges and universities are exempt from the cap of 65,000 H1-B visas (which should be lifted), we need to ensure that, on graduation, foreign workers can be employed in focused fields, including high-tech science. Second, we must permit families to be together and allow reasonable visits back to the home country for, say, family medical emergencies with an expedited process to return to the U.S. Of course, critical to the development of immigration reform, particularly if leading to larger numbers of immigrants, is further attention to border and other national security issues.

A new, more enlightened and effective policy must also recognize the benefits of even illegal/undocumented foreign nationals eventually becoming part of mainstream America. The DREAM Act was an attempt in this direction. The time may not be right for the DREAM Act (though I and many college leaders think it is), but the underlying idea is robust and very important.

Among our national priorities related to innovation, economic growth and national security, let's find the intellectual and political breathing room to forge a new set of immigration policies that will fulfill former Secretary of State Colin Powell's vision of "secure borders, open doors," match our policies to the realities of 21st century innovation and communication, and let my father's story be repeated again and again.