By Michael Medeiros
Associate Editor for Opinion
Published: Friday, February 20th, 2009
Every Class Day, amid the sea of smiling faces and rushed goodbyes, the countdown begins. International students — who comprise roughly 10 percent of undergraduates and more than a third of graduates — have no more than 29 months from the day of graduation to either find a new visa sponsor or leave the country. Those who aren’t concentrating in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) have at most 12 months.
Current U.S. visa policy sends exactly the wrong message to brilliant minds in other parts of the globe. We invite them to study at our universities, but when graduation day comes — when they’re finally ready to produce goods and services of their own — we tell them that it’s time to go home. We lose the advantage of having the world’s best universities when many of the students trained by these universities return home soon after graduation.

Financially, this policy doesn’t make sense for the U.S. government. The government currently pours billions of dollars every year into the nation’s universities. Some of this money trickles down to fund the education of the increasing number of international students on American campuses. This investment largely goes to waste when they return to their home countries and use the skills they learned here to do research or found businesses there.

There are several arguments against increasing general immigration, but most of them do not hold in the special case of immigration of American-educated foreigners. General immigration opponents argue that liberalizing immigration will open the United States to a large number of poor, unskilled foreigners who will ultimately cost the government more than they will pay in taxes. Educated foreigners, however, are likely able to generate more than enough wealth to make up for their financial burden on the government.

Another argument against liberalizing general immigration contends that increasing the number of immigrants would increase the likelihood of terrorists or other criminals entering the United States. But American-educated foreigners, having already benefited from America’s bounty and spent years immersed in our culture, are much less likely than the average immigrant to engage in criminal or terrorist activities.

The remaining argument — that foreigners will take Americans’ jobs — is thus the main argument against changing this policy. Especially during a financial crisis, it may seem counterintuitive that the U.S. should enact measures that decrease the number of jobs available to Americans. But in the long run, this protectionist logic doesn’t hold. Educated foreigners will likely create more jobs in the long term than they will take in the short term, either by contributing to economic growth or founding businesses themselves. Google and Sun Microsystems were both founded by foreigners, and both currently have over 20,000 employees.

Furthermore, the recent $800 billion bailout put much of the financial burden of today squarely on the shoulders of tomorrow. The long-term benefits of opening our borders to educated foreigners would counteract part of the bailout’s future economic consequences. Even during this crisis, the government has shown a willingness to make decisions with the long-term benefits, and not just the short-term drawbacks, in mind; the stimulus package includes funding for education and scientific research initiatives with little short-term payoff. Increasing the number of educated individuals in the United States would go hand-in-hand with these initiatives.

The Department of Homeland Security decided in April 2008 to extend the amount of time that employed foreign nationals with American degrees in STEM disciplines can remain in the country from 12 to 29 months. This was a step in the right direction. Its benefits should be extended to students of all academic fields, and the amount of time should be further increased. International PhD graduates — those with the most to contribute — should all be offered permanent residency. In addition, given the present scarcity of jobs, international graduates of American universities should be granted more time to find a job than the current 90-day limit.

Princeton has made a strong effort in recent years to recruit more international students. Besides offering information sessions abroad and extending need-blind admission to international undergraduate applicants, the Graduate School now subsidizes the visa application process for foreign students. These efforts have paid off, especially in terms of international interest in Princeton graduate programs: International applications for Fall 2008 graduate school admission rose by 10 percent over the previous year, compared to only a 2 percent increase in domestic applications.

The University should strongly encourage the federal government to further open America’s borders to educated foreigners, using the University’s recent development as evidence of the benefits that an increase in foreign minds can bring. In the meantime, the administration should continue to lead by example and make it as easy as possible for foreign students to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in Old Nassau.

Michael Medeiros is an astrophysics major from Bethesda, Md. He can be reached at