Stapling green cards to diplomas: Time to make this cliche a law

USAID Afghanistan/Flickr

The American University of Afghanistan's first graduating class, May 26, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Over 1/4 of Master's degrees awarded in 2009 went to foreigners.

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  • Foreigners account for more than 1/3 of degrees in many STEM fields.

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  • Instead of showing foreign graduates new offices and bright futures, current immigration policy shows them the door.

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  • Technology Policy Institute research finds that 25,000+ foreign graduates would stay in the US every year if not forced out.

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  • Both President #Obama and #MittRomney support changing current immigration policy for foreign graduates.

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  • Exporting foreign students who have earned graduate degrees in the US and who want to stay and work hurts the economy.

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Last week, President Obama announced that his administration would lift the threat of deportation from more than 800,000 illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and who have gone on to be productive and law-abiding residents. It was good and compassionate public policy -- even if it's a legal stretch.

But more sweeping reform is needed. The United States must stop sending away thousands of foreigners who earn advanced degrees at our universities each year and who want to stay and contribute to our economy.

"The United States must stop sending away thousands of foreigners who earn advanced degrees at our universities each year and who want to stay and contribute to our economy."-Michael R. Strain

The fact is that immigrant student capture an incredible share of our science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees. According to the National Science Foundation, foreigners earned over 13,000 doctorates in science and engineering in 2009 -- nearly one-third of the doctorates granted that year in that category. Foreigners earned more than half the doctorates awarded in every engineering field, computer science, physics, and economics. The story is the same for Master's degrees. Over one-quarter of Master's degrees awarded in 2009 went to foreigners -- 36,000 -- with foreigners accounting for well over one-third of degrees in many STEM fields.

These numbers highlight two encouraging facts. The first is that the world's smartest immigrants want to learn here. We have the finest system of higher education in the world, and young people across the globe work hard for admission to a graduate program at an American university. The second is that every year we have thousands and thousands of newly-minted graduate-degree holders born overseas who can contribute to the American economy by starting businesses, creating jobs, making discoveries, and paying taxes.

Unfortunately, instead of showing those graduates their new offices and bright futures, current immigration policy shows them the door.


When their student visas expire, foreigners have to go through an onerous process to receive the right to work in the United States. Only a certain number of foreigners are granted work visas each year, and many foreigners who graduate from U.S. universities and want to stay and work in the U.S. cannot.

Research by the Technology Policy Institute finds that over 25,000 of these graduates would stay in the United States every year if they weren't forced out. That's not a very big number compared to the president's 800,000, or compared to the approximately one million immigrants in recent years who become legal permanent residents each year. We are hurting the American economy by sending off these talented graduates.

In a National Chamber Foundation report, my AEI colleague Nick Shulz cites research finding that skilled immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than U.S. natives. Among other reasons, this is important because it is new businesses which disproportionately create jobs. One-quarter of STEM-related U.S. businesses founded between 1995 and 2005 were founded by an immigrant. Heard of Google? It was co-founded by a foreign-born Stanford Ph.D. student.

As a country, we share in the costs of educating these foreigners. But just when they can become productive members of society -- starting businesses, creating jobs, inventing new technologies and medicines, and paying taxes -- we tell them to leave. Against their wishes, we tell them to take their skills and talents and ambition to help grow another country's economy.


In a hopeful sign, a number of bills to stop the madness have been introduced in Congress, some with bipartisan support. Unfortunately, none of the bills have been voted out of committee.

Both presidential candidates support changing this policy. According to his campaign webpage, Governor Romney supports granting permanent residency to eligible graduates with advanced degrees in STEM fields. President Obama also supports similar legislation, though he hasn't acted on it in his first term.

Others agree. The National Research Council listed giving permanent residency to foreigners who earn doctorates from U.S. universities as one of the top ten policies needed to keep the United States prosperous in the 21st century. Major American corporations like Microsoft support these bills. Major universities do as well.

Foreign graduate students embody the American dream. They have overcome obstacles, gained admission to a university in a faraway country, worked hard to earn their graduate degree, often had to learn a new language and a new culture, and they want to contribute to the country that made their educational dreams come true. Except that many of them can't -- our immigration policy forces them to return home.

In a nod to the DREAM Act, the president is allowing some young illegal immigrants to stay in the United States for the next couple years, free from the threat of deportation. This is a good move. But we can't stop here. The president and Congress are giving the American economy a self-inflicted wound by exporting foreign students who have earned graduate degrees from U.S. universities and who want to stay here and work. These foreigners have dreams, too. The United States should help their dreams become reality.

Michael R. Strain is a research fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


Michael R.
  • Michael R. Strain is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies labor economics, public finance, and applied microeconomics. His research has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals and in the policy journals Tax Notes and National Affairs. Dr. Strain also writes frequently for popular audiences on topics including labor market policy, jobs, minimum wages, federal tax and budget policy, and the Affordable Care Act, among others.  His essays and op-eds have been published by National Review, The Weekly Standard, The Atlantic, Forbes, Bloomberg View, and a variety of other outlets. He is frequently interviewed by major media outlets, and speaks often on college campuses. Before joining AEI he worked on the research team of the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics program and was the manager of the New York Census Research Data Center, both at the U.S. Census Bureau.  Dr. Strain began his career in the macroeconomics research group of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  He is a graduate of Marquette University, and holds an M.A. from New York University and a Ph.D. from Cornell.

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