March 10, 2009

Visa Calamity

One of the things that makes the United States of America truly exceptional in the world is the our truly amazing system of higher education. Think about the very top universities in the world. How many of them are in the USA? Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Duke, Columbia, Princeton, Cal Tech, MIT -- these are world-class schools. How many cognates of them can you think of outside the United States? Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne -- and after that, you're gonna start to have to really think. Heidelburg?

The London Guardian, no bastion of Americophiles, lists this as the top ten, and all of them are in either the US or the UK:
  1. Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass., USA)
  2. Yale University (New Haven, Conn., USA)
  3. University of Cambridge (Cambridge, UK)
  4. University of Oxford (Oxford, UK)
  5. Caltech (Pasadena, Cal., USA)
  6. Imperial College (London, UK)
  7. University College (London, UK)
  8. University of Chicago (Chicago, Ill., USA)
  9. MIT (Boston, Mass., USA)
  10. Columbia University (New York City, NY, USA)
Going to the Guardian's source material, you've got to go to #16 to get a non-US/UK university, which winds up being the Australian National University in Canberra, and to get into a non-English speaking university, you head further down the list to #19, the University of Tokyo. (My own alma mater ranks #98 globally, which is not so bad. In your face, Purdue!)

On the list, thirty-seven out of the top 100 universities are in the United States of America, a nation of 300 million people. Take a nation of 1.3 billion, the People's Republic of China. It boasts two universities on the top 100. Or a nation of 1.15 billion, India. It has zero. (India has two in the top 200, though.)

Now, I take it as a given that people are no more inherently smart in the United States than they are anywhere else. But innate intellectual ability is hardly the end of the story. Intelligence requires education in order to be useful. Even a significant figure of genius -- an Einstein or a Newton -- needed university education in order to make significant progress in their disciplines. So having the best schools in the world gives the United States a huge advantage.

This creates a system in which the F-1 visa, which is issued to college or graduate students from abroad who wish to study in U.S. universities, are in high global demand. Accordingly, the process of getting a sponsorship from a U.S. university is competitive. And as is little known to most U.S. citizens but probably well-known to those who have known people from abroad who have come to study here, a prospective F-1 visa recipient must also provide proof of a fairly substantial amount of money saved up in the bank, so as to prove the ability to pay for the cost of two years' worth of expenses while here in the United States.

What this means is that the United States attracts the brightest, most ambitious, and richest students from around the world. They come here to study and learn. Along the way, they get the experience of living in the United States. They develop friends here. They develop an appreciation for our open society. Since these are elites, they will gravitate towards other elites, or at least other comfortable people, and discover a relatively crime-free and affluent society, one which for the most part is interested in them and what they have to learn and say and one in which they can clearly see opportunities for themselves.

A lot of them decide that they want to stay and take advantage of those opportunities. I propose here that we do everything in our power to let them do exactly that. By attracting these people to our shores, we are able to keep ourselves the smartest, most technologically-advanced, and most productive society on the planet -- in part because we are sending our own bright young people to these universities, but also because the bright people from around the world are coming here and staying on to work afterwards, using the skills and knowledge they have gained to contribute to our economy.

Apocryphal evidence from acquaintances suggests that many of them stay on for a few years after graduating from their U.S. university, and then go home. And of those, a substantial number that they prefer the U.S. to their own homelands, and prefer to immigrate to the U.S. permanently and maybe even naturalize. And when that happens, we have a highly-skilled, well-educated, affluent person who wants to come here and be a part of our economy, a part of our society. A person with contacts and family from the higher levels of society back in their home country. It's good for us diplomatically and it's good for us economically.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, restrictions on the number of student visas, particularly from middle eastern nations, were imposed in the original USA-PATRIOT Act and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002. Those restrictions should be loosened and we should invite more students in. I do not see anything wrong with a more elaborate screening process than what this young man had to go through to get a visa to the University of Florida (he seems to think this was a long interview; in fact I think it was rather short) but the presumption should be that this is a bureaucratic hoop for a foreign student to jump through which anyone who is reasonably bright and of a generally legitimate background should be able to do.

What is more, and probably more important even than having plentiful numbers of foreign students coming here, is to make work opportunities available to these people when they graduate. For this, the primary ticket is the H1-B visa. A foreign national generally needs a college degree and an employer who will sponsor the foreign worker.

This is, in my opinion, not enough to fulfill the real purpose of the F-1 and H1-B visa programs. Because we are turning away talented, smart people, people who can make important contributions if given the chance to do so, these people are going home and since we're making it clear to them that they're not welcome in the U.S., they go to do the things that they would have done here back in their native lands. In particular, they are going back home to create industries, build roads, start companies, and employ people. In 2006, corporations founded by immigrants in the United States employed 450,000 workers, generated $52 billion in tax revenues, and were responsible for more than one-quarter of all patents issued by the USPTO.

These people are going home and doing those things there instead. They are doing it because, astonishingly, they see better opportunities at home than they do here. They feel more welcome there. They believe they can have a higher quality of life in places like India or China than they can in the United States. These are young, talented people who could be contributing here if only we allow them to. And I'm thinking in particular of India, and in particular of the field of high-tech here, because about 70% of all H1-Bs are issued to nationals of India whose field of expertise is in technology.

Lest you think I'm railing against Republican moatdiggers, I'm not. I'm taking dead aim at the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress, which included in its wasteful stimulus package a provision that none of the stimulus money could go to any company that sponsored an H1-B visa. The value of these people is significant; the contributions they make to our economy as work-generators is not insignificant. But Candidate Obama was cool to the idea of expanding the number of H1-B visas, and we can expect President Obama to leave in place or restrict the current number of these visas for highly-skilled, educated foreign workers.

Is there a shortage of U.S. high tech workers? Well, apparently there is. Otherwise, there wouldn't be so many H1-B applicants in this particular field. Our own industries and businesses are now heavily dependent on high technology to stay competitive. We can't compete with cheap foreign labor; workers in other nations work just as hard as us and they are industrializing to compete better. Therefore, if we are to stay on top economically we need to be smarter and more advanced than everyone else. And if we could keep up with the need for the kinds of workers that enable us to do that, no doubt we would be doing it already.

What's more, these are people we want, or at least, people we should want, here in our country, doing tech jobs, making friends and putting down roots while putting in a good word for us with the elites in their circle of friends and family back home in the world's fastest-growing economy and soon to be the world's most populous nation. We could and should interweave our economic and diplomatic interests with India precisely because it is a large, industrialized, and increasingly wealthy nation. India, even more than China, is the marketplace of choice for the world's goods and services in the future -- and if America is well-poised to take advantage of this, we too will profit in the long run, right along with our Indian trading partners.

But that will only come true if we have the foresight to look beyond the protectionist impulses that seem to be guiding our new President and the fear inherent in the immigration policies he inherited from the previous administration. We cannot and should not be afraid of the world, either economically or socially. If the Democrats are going to retreat into protectionism, then this is an opportunity for Republicans to embrace the international economy -- because eventually, the power and opportunity of the international economy will overwhelm those who would use the law to stand in its way.

And strategically, having 1.4 billion friends living south of the Himalayas rooting for our college football teams is way, way better than having those same 1.4 billion people looking crosswise at us because most of them know someone who wanted to study here and got turned away. Maybe we ought to learn a thing or two about cricket, while we're at it.

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