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America’s Foreign Students and Immigration Reform

Despite bipartisan consensus in favor of retaining foreign students studying at U.S. universities to make America economically competitive, Congress continues to disagree over the details. Over the past couple of years, we have seen introduced a panoply of cleverly-named legislative proposals—see STAPLE, STEM, STAR, BRAINS, and SMART—to create a green card for foreign students receiving graduate degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields can work in the United States immediately post-graduation. Yet, some fear that an accelerated inflow of foreign workers may depress wages and crowd out opportunities for Americans. Very soon, the American public will see some version of these proposals in a much-anticipated comprehensive immigration reform bill.

To understand the potential impact of this legislation, the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program has compiled new facts about America’s foreign student population. This is part of a new Brookings Immigration Facts series, which will shed light on the potential national and local impacts of immigration reform.

If legislation is passed to create an easier pathway for retaining foreign students that obtain advanced STEM degrees at U.S. universities, the impact could be large: about 96,200 incoming foreign students on F-1 visas in 2010 could have become eligible for a green card upon graduation. Currently, only a fraction of these students attain a temporary skilled-worker visa after graduating. The H-1B visa program has been one of the main pathways for retaining American-trained foreign students, though only 19,922 H-1B recipients in 2010 (26 percent of all H-1B visas) were foreigners with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

The reforms could disproportionately impact particular nationalities and localities. The large majority of America’s foreign master’s and doctoral STEM degree students hail from India and China, comprising 54 and 22 percent respectively, of all such students. Under the current visa system, citizens from these two countries face waiting times that exceed 10 years for a green card due to country caps backlogs.

The impact of increased retention of America’s foreign students would vary geographically. Smaller metropolitan areas in the middle of the country, home to many of the colleges and universities with the largest shares of STEM students from foreign countries, could experience an influx of potential workers already residing in their local economies. According to a previous Brookings study on the geographic demand for H-1B workers, metro areas in this part of the country rank among the highest for the STEM share of H-1B workers requested by employers.

As Congress debates over the details in creating visas to retain America’s foreign students, they must study the facts to ensure that smart policy is adopted.

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