Last month, United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) placed Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein, an Iranian international student attending Northeastern University, on a return flight the same night he landed at Logan International Airport. Shockingly, this incident occurred after a federal judge had ordered that Shahab should remain in the country until a court reviews his case. It is actions like this that are pushing foreign talents away from the United States.
With some of the best educational institutions in the world, an incredibly diverse culture, and seemingly limitless job opportunities, it is no surprise that the United States has become the number-one destination for students from around the world. During the 1949–1950 academic year, there were only 26,000 international students in the United States. Today, there are more than one million international students across the country—that’s more than one in twenty of all college students nationwide.
And yet, today’s highly charged national conversation about immigration reform leaves little to no room to include international students in the public debate, which tends to center around unauthorized immigrants, border security and detention procedures, and refugee and asylum policies.
Foreign students contribute billions of dollars to our economy, strengthen our education quality, and enrich our culture. Institutions of higher education and employers seek them out, eager to recruit them. However, since 2016, there has been a major decline in new enrollments of international students at schools across the United States. This has been caused by many factors, including increasing visa delays and denials, tense anti-immigration policies and rhetoric, and cheaper tuition costs in other countries.
This report sheds light on the consequences of this decline and why we need to reform our immigration policies in a way that not only incentivizes more foreign students to study in the United States, but that also retains and integrates their talents into the workforce.
My Unusual Story as an International Student
Fourteen years ago, I was forced to seek refuge in Damascus, Syria during Iraq’s sectarian civil war (2004–2008). At the time, I was a high school student with big dreams of attending medical school in Baghdad. (Times have changed: as a policy entrepreneur working on immigration issues at a start-up think tank in New York City, it is safe to say that I did not become a doctor.)
One evening in Damascus, after she came back from the grocery store, my mother called me and firmly said: “Taif, I just met two Americans, Gabe and Theresa, at the store and they want to talk to you about your education. They’re coming here tomorrow.” I was perplexed, to say the least. Sure enough, Gabe and Theresa showed up the next day. After a quick introduction, and some cardamom tea, they went on to explain their new initiative, the Iraqi Students Project (ISP), a grassroots effort to help displaced young Iraqis start and/or finish their college education in the United States. I clearly remember them asking me how I learned to speak English. My precise response: “I have been listening to Eminem nonstop for over a year. I love American English.” Both are true statements that I stand by to this day.
A year after joining the ISP, I received my acceptance letter to join the class of 2012 at Union College in Schenectady, New York. Not only was I given the opportunity to continue my education with a college degree: I was also going to do it in the United States. Except there was just one final, terrifying, hurdle I needed to overcome: getting my F-1 student visa from the American embassy. As Eminem puts it in Lose Yourself, “palms sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy:” I gathered every kind of personal documentation I could find and went to my visa interview. After I handed in my passport and some other documents, the visa officer looked me in the eyes and asked, “So how did you learn English?” I took a deep breath and replied, once again, “by listening to Eminem.” I got my visa on the spot.
“So how did you learn English?” I took a deep breath and replied, once again, “by listening to Eminem.” I got my visa on the spot.
I constantly ask myself, where would I be today if my mother had not been at that grocery store on that evening in Damascus? Or without Eminem?
My journey was just beginning. As an international student, I had the opportunity to meet, and become friends with, some of the brightest and most talented individuals from around the world—the community of other international students. Their tenacity and commitment to academic and professional success was truly inspirational. Yet, regardless of their talents, drive, and love for the United States, the majority of them were forced to leave the United States simply because they were not given the opportunity to stay and work after graduating.
That loss of talent is now showing its negative impact on life here in the United States.
Putting International Students in the Public Debate
Before we go any further on how best to fully bring foreign students into our national debate around immigration, it is essential to first address some key facts.
We are seeing a decline in new enrollments of international students.
Even though the total number of international students in the United States today is at a record high, new enrollments have been declining, from 300,743 in the 2015–2016 academic year to 269,383 in 2018–2019, a drop of more than 10 percent. According to the Institute of International Education, this decline is caused by three major factors: increased visa delays and denials, the current tense social and political climate in the United States, and cripplingly expensive tuition costs—costs that are also creating immense challenges for American students. While new enrollments have been dropping in the United States, they are increasing in other countries. According to Australia’s Department of Education, the number of newly enrolled international students has risen by 47 percent since 2015. In Canada, the number of international students increased by 36 percent since 2017.
International students tend to come from the same handful of countries.
While the countries have changed over the years, there generally tend to be a few key countries that contribute the majority of international students in the United States. In the 1949–1950 academic year, the majority of the international student population was coming from Canada, Taiwan, and India. However, after the removal of the national-origins quota system with the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, the flow of where international students come from has changed significantly. For example, since the 2016–2017 academic year, China has been the leading country for international students, representing 33 percent, or 370,000, of the total number. The other two largest pools come from India and South Korea, representing approximately 18 percent and 5 percent of the total number of international students, respectively.
International students are most likely to study in the STEM disciplines.
During the 2018–2019 academic year, more than half of the total number of international students in the United States majored in STEM fields, with engineering being the most popular academic field for foreign students—more than 21 percent of the total.
International students are concentrated in California, New York, and Texas, but study all over the country.
Hosting more than 160,000 of the nation’s total number of international students, California is the main destination for those seeking to finish their education in the United States from across the world. New York got second place, hosting over 120,000 international students, while Texas was in third place, with a little over 80,000. The following top seven states are Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. In this year’s race to the top of the list in terms of U.S. academic institutions’ international enrollment, New York University won the gold medal with 19,605 international students, which contributes considerably to making it the most diverse campus in the country. The University of Southern California took the silver medal, enrolling 16,340 international students, and Northeastern University snatched the bronze with 16,075.
Investing in Our Future
While international students have a lot to gain from studying in the United States, they also have a lot to contribute. This isn’t news to some, but it is now time that the American public as a whole understands that we need to not only recruit more international students, but make sure that we retain their talents and skills by providing them the opportunity to stay in the country after graduation.
Here are four ways in which international students contribute to our nation:
1. Economic Contributions
During the 2018–2019 academic year alone, international students in the United States contributed more than $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported nearly half a million jobs nationwide. Interestingly, the significant economic contributions of international students are not just found in progressive states, but also in some of the most conservative regions in the country. It ought not to surprise us, then, that today’s ongoing decline of new enrollments of international students has cost the United States economy nearly $12 billion and more than 65,000 jobs.
2. Educational Quality and Experience
Economic benefits aside, international students are also very beneficial to the quality of U.S. education. Schools, colleges, and universities benefit tremendously from international students because they enrich the cultural diversity in these institutions, bring global perspectives and dimensions, and allow American students the opportunity to interact with, and learn from, representatives of other nations. Research has shown that cultural diversity in a classroom can have tremendous academic, civic, and economic benefits for all students. Studies have also found that interacting with international students can significantly improve domestic students’ cognitive and leadership skills, professional development, linguistic capabilities, analytical thinking, and understanding of science and technology.
3. Alleviating America’s STEM Crisis
In recent years, experts have been sounding the alarm that the United States could be facing a STEM crisis very soon. As a matter of fact, by 2025, according to predictions by the National Association of Manufacturing and Deloitte, the United States will need to fill 3.5 million STEM jobs, over 50 percent of which might go unfilled due to a shortage of skilled domestic STEM talent. The latest statistics reveal that with just 500,000 STEM graduates annually, the United States is substantially behind China (4.7 million) and India (2.6 million). Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science Committee held a hearing, during which experts indicated that one of the main solutions to that potential crisis is that the United States has to remain open to recruiting, and maintaining, international STEM students. From a public policy perspective, it not only makes sense to encourage international students to enroll in the United States and make it easy for them to stay afterwards: it may soon be necessary.
From a public policy perspective, it not only makes sense to encourage international students to enroll in the United States and make it easy for them to stay afterwards: it may soon be necessary.
This is where foreign talent comes in handy. Foreign students make up more than three-quarters of the graduate population in electrical engineering and computer science fields. Additionally, more than 50,000 international students in U.S. universities graduate with degrees in artificial intelligence (AI), whereas domestic students only contribute 23,000 to that particular talent pool. Additionally, international students create jobs. In 2016, international students founded or co-founded nearly a quarter of all U.S. unicorn companies, which are cumulatively worth more than $60 billion and are responsible for creating 20,000 jobs. If we make it easier for these talented, productive individuals to stay and contribute, then there won’t be a repeat, for instance, of the nearly one million intelligence and technology (IT) jobs that were left unfilled in 2019 due to talent shortages.
4. Strengthening Our National Security
Another crucial, but often ignored, benefit of international students is how they improve U.S. national security. As NAFSA: Association of International Educators puts it, educational exchange “is integral to our security; it is an investment we make to create a world in which we can be secure.” International students are, in a way, ambassadors to their countries of origin, helping to bridge cultural differences and connect American citizens to the outside world. This puts the United States at an advantage, because it creates the opportunity for future U.S. and international leaders, who in many cases have studied together, to have much more productive diplomatic affairs and build business ties, thereby strengthening allyship with nations worldwide. International students’ crucial role in STEM fields also contributes to their security benefits: it’s significant that, for instance, international students make up two-thirds of all U.S. graduates in fields pertaining to AI, a talent that is central to U.S. national security and military competitiveness.
Caught in the Crossfire
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, as well as policy experts, school officials, and business leaders from all political persuasions and walks of life, all agree that there are tremendous benefits in recruiting, and maintaining, international students in the United States. Yet, why are our current immigration policies and practices taking aim at these students and graduates, and pushing them away?
For instance, the processing time for international student visas used to be two months. However, in February 2019, the Trump administration extended these processing times to 180 days. School officials across the United States have expressed deep concerns regarding these delays because they have invested a lot of time, money, and resources to recruit these international students, who are now stuck in processing backlogs and might not be able to start their academic year on time. These delays alone send a clear and loud message to international students: America is not as welcoming as it used to be.
These delays alone send a clear and loud message to international students: America is not as welcoming as it used to be.
But those delays are far from the only deterrent. Additionally, the current administration has clamped down on a variety of work authorization applications that are absolutely essential to international students to be able to stay in the United States and bring their talents and skills to our economy. For example, after President Trump signed the Buy American and Hire American executive order in 2017, denials of H-1B visas—temporary nonimmigrant visas that allow highly skilled foreign individuals to work in the country—have increased by 18 percent since 2015, according to a recent report by the National Foundation for American Policy. In 2018, only 2 percent of the total number of international students in the United States received H-1B visas, sixteen thousand less than in 2016.
And the hits keep coming. The administration is also proposing a new rule, which is projected to take effect in August of this year, to roll back STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT), a program that helps international STEM students stay and work in the United States for twenty-four months. The New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization, estimates that rolling back STEM OPT would cost the United States more than $130 million annually. And they aren’t alone in their criticism: more than 118 colleges and universities have responded with an amicus brief in protest of the potential rollback of programs such as OPT.
Policing of international students has also developed disturbing trends. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun to specifically target foreign students, going so far as to set up a fake university, with a fake name, fake history, real tuition and fees, a website, and a motto, to trick international students who might have overstayed their visas. The result was shocking: 250 students were arrested. 90 percent of them left the United States either voluntarily or via deportation orders.
Furthermore, some students have even been wrongfully detained at airports and were forced to return home. In August 2019, 17-year-old Ismail Ajjawi was forced to return to Lebanon right when he landed at Logan International Airport in Boston because a Custom and Border Protection (CBP) agent was suspicious of his friends’ social media posts. CBP also denied entry to nine international students from China and sent them back home, deeming them “inadmissible”—for no apparent reason at all.
In order for the United States to attract more international students again, as well as retain their skills and talents, we need common-sense federal policies. Below are a few policy recommendations, based on a NAFSA issue brief and a report by the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), that the federal government could implement:
- Reduce visa fees and expedite visa processing times. We can attract more international students by simply reducing fees for student visas and implementing a variety of technological improvements to reduce visa processing times.
- Create a dual-intent student visa program that would allow international students to apply for permanent residency after graduation. This would give international students the opportunity to invest their talents in our workforce after graduation.
- Streamline post-graduation policies to integrate international students into the workforce and retain their skills. For example, the U.S. government could build a student-to-work pathway for foreign students. This could be done by expanding the H-1B visa cap or creating a new visa for international students who want to start a business in the United States.
- Invest more resources to collect better data on foreign talent retention trends, and make sure that policymakers know about those trends. For example, Congress could allocate the needed resources to expand surveys on the international student population in the United States, collecting more data on how many of them remain and work in the United States after graduation, what they end up doing for employment, why they chose that career or position, etc. Gathering this kind of information will help enormously with our understanding of how foreign-born students and graduates are contributing to our economy. We should also hold more congressional hearings on the issue, ones that include the voices of international students and graduates themselves, to amplify their contributions among our nation’s policymakers.
By raising awareness about the impact international students have on our economy, educational quality, and cultural diversity, we will create policies that attract, and retain, more foreign talents. By investing in these talents, we will create a better and more prosperous future for all Americans.
During a time when the United States is divided around immigration policies, the majority agree that international students are invaluable to our economy, education, and cultural diversity. While the number of international students in the United States is at a record high, new enrollments have declined dramatically in recent years. Negative rhetoric against immigrants, increased visa delays, and limited employment opportunities continue to discourage international students from wanting to come to the United States to pursue their dreams. America now has the chance to once again show the world that it not only welcomes international students, but also is invested in retaining these foreign talents to help build a brighter future for our nation, as well as create a more peaceful and well-connected world.
In closing, I invite the man who started it all for me to sum it all up:
“This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.”—Eminem