In order for our economy to recover from the devastation of the novel coronavirus, the United States needs a long-term strategy for economic growth and workforce development. It is time that we step up to modernize our immigration policies in order to encourage more international students to study at our colleges and universities and to ensure that we retain their skills and talents post-graduation. At this point, we have the world’s smartest and brightest students choosing to finish their education in the United States; but after honing their expertise, they then have to go back home after graduation because they are not given the opportunity to stay. It doesn’t need to be this way: we can tackle the problem by creating a new and innovative program that provides all international students a three-year work authorization, eligible for an extension of additional three years, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree or higher from a U.S. college or university.
It is time that we step up to modernize our immigration policies in order to encourage more international students to study at our colleges and universities and to ensure that we retain their skills and talents post-graduation.
As I described in my report, “To Invest in Our Future Is to Invest in International Students,” international students contribute tremendous value to our economy, education, and national security. With over one million studying nationwide, international students contribute more than $41 billion to the U.S. economy; enhance our educational quality and cultural diversity; address talent gaps; and even contribute to our national security.
However, the United States’s outdated immigration policies have made it extremely difficult for international students to reach their full potential and give back to our communities. For example, last month, after rescinding an earlier rule, the Trump administration issued new guidance banning any international student from coming to the United States to enroll in colleges and universities that are operating solely online only during the fall 2020 semester. These actions will further signal to the world that the United States is no longer a welcoming place for international students.
Simply put, our immigration system is designed in a way that wastes talent, instead of retaining it.
Furthermore, there is a common misconception that all international students who come to the United States are wealthy. A lot of international students come from war-torn countries, have had poor upbringings, and possess limited access to educational opportunities in their countries of origin. However, regardless of the size of their bank accounts, international students are still being sent home after they graduate. Simply put, our immigration system is designed in a way that wastes talent, instead of retaining it.
The United States Is Rapidly Losing Talent Necessary for Our Post-Pandemic Recovery
Although the United States has been the number-one destination for foreign students for decades, things have changed in recent years. Increased pressure from the U.S. government, accompanied by delays in processing times and increased visa denials, have pushed many international students away. According to the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), the enrollment of new international students at U.S. universities in the 2020–21 academic year is projected to decline by between 63 percent and 98 percent from 2018–19 levels—the lowest attendance from international students since the end of World War II. This steep drop of international students could be detrimental to the United States’s economy, education, and culture.
The enrollment of new international students at U.S. universities in the 2020–21 academic year is projected to decline by between 63 percent and 98 percent from 2018–19 levels—the lowest attendance from international students since the end of World War II.
For example, the United States is currently facing a shortage of domestic STEM graduates, which is forcing us to fall behind China and India in those fields. Experts have indicated that one of the main solutions to the problem is to encourage more international students to come study in the United States. That is primarily because more than half of all international students in the country graduate in STEM. That is talent that we cannot afford to lose.
Simultaneously, other countries are realizing the significance of international students and are working hard to seize this opportunity to not only attract them, but create long-term solutions for them to stay, find work, and even receive naturalization. For example, Canada has created the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWPP), which provides three-year open work permits for all full-time international students graduating from an eligible Canadian educational institution. New Zealand offers international students up to three years of work authorization after graduation. Not only that, but spouses of international students are also eligible to receive work permits during that time, and their children are given the opportunity to study fee-free as domestic students. As the numbers of international students decrease in the United States, we are seeing significant jumps in the foreign student population in Australia, China, Canada, and across Europe.
Our Existing Programs for Foreign Students Leave Gaps
Currently, after they graduate, most international students either apply for the Optional Practical Training (OPT), or compete with hundreds of thousands of applicants for a limited number of H-1B visas (see the last section of this commentary for a visa glossary). OPT is a temporary work permit that allows international students to work solely in their major of study for up to twelve months after graduation. However, OPT is expensive for just one year (applications cost more than $500), and once it expires, the student must leave the United States.
H-1Bs are also not a good option for most international students. The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) caps H-1B visas at 65,000 annually, with an additional 20,000 saved for those with a master’s degree or higher. This is far below the demand that USCIS receives every year for H-1B visas. For example, in 2020, USCIS received 275,000 H-1B applications, and the cap was reached days after the agency made it available on April 1, 2020. This highly competitive process makes it nearly impossible for international students to have the opportunity to receive an H-1B visa. Moreover, applicants need a job offer in order to secure the opportunity; for foreign students, that means just to apply, an employer must be prepared to sponsor them—i.e., submit a Labor Condition Application (LCA), committing to hire them, and affirming that they are the best fit for the job—right after graduation.
The Fix: Offer of Universal Work Authorization for International Students
Other countries, such as Canada, New Zealand, and China, are already implementing programs to attract, and retain, more international students. To make the United States once again the number-one destination for international students, we must encourage them to come and study at our colleges and universities, and make it possible to inject their skills and talents into our workforce so that we benefit from their skills, and thereby realize a significant return on investment.
One way to do this would be for Congress to create a new federal program, that reflects a proactive vision of an America that welcomes and embraces international students: the Keeping Talent in America Act (KTAA).
More specifically, KTAA would do the following:
Strengthen America’s workforce and global economic competitiveness. The act would provide a three-year work authorization to all full-time F-1 international students who have attended schools in the United States, remained in good standing, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Promote a long-term strategy to keep talent in America. After three years, any F-1 international student who has secured ongoing employment will be eligible for a three-year extension of the original authorization.
Advance a vision of a welcoming America for global talent. After six years of successful employment in the United States under KTAA, provided that the individual has remained in good standing, they may be eligible for permanent residency—as long as they apply prior to their KTAA status expiring (similar to F-1 visa holders who apply for OPT, or many other immigration programs).
An initial KTAA work authorization would not be conditional on employment status. For example, in the event an F-1 international student is not already employed or has not yet received a binding offer of employment, they may remain in the United States for three years post-graduation as long as there is evidence that they are seeking employment.
KTAA would rely on existing filing procedures to save time and resources. To file for KTAA, all F-1 international students would be required to do the following:
- Apply for this status prior to graduation by filing an Application for Employment Authorization (Form I-765), the same form used by all foreign-born individuals who are authorized to work in the United States; and
- pay a total fee of $550.
It is important to note that this new policy initiative would maintain existing H-1B and OPT programs. Instead, it would create a new pathway that would encourage more of the highly qualified, international students to enroll in our colleges and universities, retain their training and skills after graduation, and strengthen the international competitiveness of the United States at a time in our history when that is of greater importance than ever before.
The math is simple:
More international students = A stronger United States.
In order to understand the various elements of this piece, it is important to know the following definitions:
- F-1: A nonimmigrant visa available for full-time academic international students, who are attending accredited colleges and universities, seminaries, conservatories, elementary and high schools, language training programs, and other academic institutions.
- Optional Practical Training (OPT): A temporary employment authorization allowing F-1 students to work for up to twelve months post-graduation only in their major area.
- H-1B: A temporary, nonimmigrant visa program that allows employers to hire highly educated and skilled foreign-born workers in “specialty occupations,” such as computer scientists, engineers, doctors, and fashion models.
- Nonimmigrant: A foreign-born individual who is admitted to the United States for a specific purpose and for a limited time. Some examples of nonimmigrants include, but are not limited to, foreign workers, international students, tourists, and diplomatic officials.