A Diploma Wrapped In Red Tape

Albert H. Teich urges legislators to chuck a part of the student visa process:

The United States is in a worldwide competition for the best scientific and engineering talent. But its regulations and procedures have failed to keep pace with today’s increasingly globalized science and technology. Rather than facilitating international commerce in talent and ideas, they too often inhibit it, discouraging talented scientific visitors, students, and potential immigrants from coming to and remaining in the United States.

Many elements of the visa and immigration system need attention, as I discuss at length in an article for Issues in Science & Technology. But one critical reform involves reconsidering the requirement that STEM students demonstrate intent to return home.

Under section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, all persons applying for a U.S. visa are presumed to be intending to immigrate. In practice, this means that a person being interviewed for a student visa must persuade the consular officer that he or she does not intend to remain permanently in the United States. Simply stating the intent to return home after completion of one’s educational program is not enough. The applicant must present evidence of strong ties to the home country, such as connections to family members, a bank account, a job or other steady source of income, or a house or other property.

Teich explains why this requirement poses a problem for the US economy:

Foreign graduate students and postdocs, especially in STEM fields, make up a large and increasingly essential element of U.S. higher education. According to recent data from the National Science Foundation, for example, more than 70 percent of full-time graduate students in electrical engineering and 63 percent in computer science in U.S. universities are international students. …

What is needed is a more flexible policy that provides the opportunity for qualified international students who graduate with bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. STEM degrees to remain in the United States if they choose to do so, without allowing the student visa to become an easy way to subvert regulations on permanent immigration. It makes no sense to try to make such distinctions by denying the fact that people who are applying to study in the United States may be uncertain about their plans four (or more) years later.