At a recent event, one of my former high school classmates who today is a distinguished Stanford University professor asked me whether there was much immigration legal work in Pittsburgh. He then commented that 80 percent of his graduate students were foreign nationals.
Of course, the same likely could be said for Carnegie Mellon or the University of Pittsburgh because a majority of graduate students in the nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are foreign nationals.
Some surprising hard statistics drive home this point. A 2017 study reports that 81 percent of full-time graduate students in electrical and petroleum engineering at U.S. universities are international students, and 79 percent in computer science are foreign nationals. The Pew Research Center noted that the federal Optional Training Program or OPT has seen a 400 percent increase in foreign students graduating and working in STEM fields from 2008 to 2016.
Immigrants from all over the world are being educated at American institutions of higher education, and many are seeking or being sought after to stay and apply their knowledge and talent to the United States workforce.
Education, in many ways, is a U.S. export with a positive balance of trade. Many foreign students pay full tuition, others make academic, scientific, economic and entrepreneurial contributions to this country’s body of work, knowledge and innovations. They are often top students or they wouldn’t have made it here. Their numbers are declining because current immigration policy makes a foreign student’s ability to stay in the U.S., regardless of their accomplishments or an employer’s need for their service, less secure.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) claims to be “cracking down” on employment-based immigration. For example, the very popular H-1B visa – which provides for foreign workers to be temporarily employed in specialty occupations – is plagued with requests for evidence to prove in the extreme that the position sought to be filled requires at least a bachelor’s level education and that the immigrant has that education. Recently, USCIS cracked down on a post-doctoral researcher whose visa was sought by a local university. USCIS demanded proof that a position that requires a doctoral degree is one that also requires a bachelor’s degree. In another case, USCIS required a translation of the immigrant’s diploma into English because the esteemed University of Pennsylvania, from which he earned his degree, issues its diplomas in Latin.
Not all of the “crackdown” is that funny. As USCIS re-adjudicates previously approved petitions, some long-employed H-1B workers are being denied extensions of their visas.
A highly valued tech worker whom I know had been in his position for close to a decade while waiting for the availability of visas so he and his family could file for permanent residency green cards. The long wait is because of the simple fact that he was born in India. The denial of his recent extension petition was because USCIS arbitrarily chose not to believe that a senior software developer for an international consulting firm required a bachelor’s degree – notwithstanding that three prior extensions had been approved, and in spite of the worker having a master’s degree, a decade of experience and praise from industry experts. The worker and his family returned to India. The company lost a valuable employee. The community lost a high earning family and taxpayer. After another family learned of the impediments to coming to the U.S. legally and staying legally, and realized that the U.S. is no longer very open to them, the nation lost even more rich talent who wanted to study, work or invest here.
This is not about undocumented individuals, refugees or criminal aliens. It is a different story, sadder as the beacon of hope that once was the U.S.’s message to the rest of the world has grown dim. It is about walls of a different sort – administrative and procedural and bureaucratic walls erected to deter immigrants from coming legally to the U.S. with the intention of learning, working and achieving. These same barriers are forcing U.S. firms to cease or relocate parts of their businesses that require foreign- born workers. Frustratingly, USCIS has been creative in its almost daily changes of processing protocols, changes that impose more restrictions, delays and roadblocks.
This year record numbers of H-1B petitions were filed in the annual lottery. The high demand reflects the need for workers and the absence of sufficient numbers of U.S. workers at a time when record numbers of Americans are reaching retirement age and leaving the workforce.
Why are there Pittsburgh based start-ups that export their research and development functions to Canada and Spain? The answer is because their workers can safely secure and maintain lawful status and employment authorization in those nations. Other countries welcome and benefit from foreign talent that the U.S. “doesn’t have room for.”
Is there immigration work in Pittsburgh? Are there immigrants still coming to Pittsburgh? Of course there is and are. Walk through most business districts, and one likely will hear many passersby speaking a language other than English (and other than Yinzerese).
Our local schools, universities, hospitals, businesses, restaurants and institutions have a host of foreign immigrants learning, working and owning there.
Immigration can continue to make America great, if we let it!