Why Universities Like Cornell Care About Immigration Reform

PHOTO: science

A group of university and college presidents sent an open letter in support of immigration reform to 1,200 of their counterparts across the country today, and called for their colleagues to join them in the discussion.

See Also: 21 Immigration Reform Power Players

Specifically, the presidents -- from Cornell University, Arizona State University, and Miami Dade College -- voiced their support for better ways to retain foreign students in the fields of science technology, engineering and math (STEM).

"Too often, however, our ability to educate and our ability to innovate are frustrated by U.S. immigration laws," the presidents wrote in the letter. "We train many of the brightest minds of the world, only to have those students sent abroad to compete against us because our immigration laws do not provide a viable path for them to stay."

The academic leaders also called attention to the plight of undocumented youth who graduate high school in the U.S., but can't continue to higher education because their citizenship status keeps them from working or receiving financial aid.

Some prospective changes to immigration law could have a notable impact on institutions of higher learning, especially those that specialize in the STEM fields.

President Barack Obama and Republicans have proposed "stapling" a green card to the diplomas of foreign students who graduate from an American university with a master's degree or Ph.D in those fields, and an expansion of science and tech visas has broad bipartisan support.

The windfall for colleges and universities is clear: If an advanced degree offers a straightforward path to a green card, students from around the world could be more likely to study in the U.S. That could add up to more tuition dollars, and also draw some of the world's most talented students.

Not all of the activism by colleges and universities has been in the form of letter writing. Immigration was a top lobbying issue for a number of schools in 2012, including Cornell, which lobbied on legislation related to STEM visas and other parts of comprehensive immigration reform. In December 2011, Cornell won a $100 million competition to start an engineering and applied science center on New York City's Roosevelt Island, located just off the coast of Manhattan. The new campus is expected to open in 2017.

Organizations like the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of mayors and business leaders formed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are making the case that immigrant students help drive innovation in fields like science and technology. According to one report by the group, three quarters of the patents produced by top universities came from foreign-born students.

John Feinblatt, the chief policy advisor to Mayor Bloomberg, says the immigration system makes it hard for talented students to stay.

"Those graduates, rather than inventing the next big idea or the next startup here in the U.S., they're starting businesses, getting patents and creating the next big idea in other countries," Feinblatt said. "They should be driving our economy in the U.S.; instead, we're driving them away."

The open letter calls for universities and colleges across the country to join the discussion on immigration in a collective day of action on April 19. According to David Skorton, the president of Cornell University, the action might take different forms at each participating school, including teach-ins and student-run phone banks. All of the actions will be pushing toward a common goal, however.

"What's really important is that action occurs at the executive branch and legislative branch of the U.S. government," Skorton said. In the months since the November election, bipartisan support for reform has emerged in Congress, a rare moment, the Cornell president said. "We're trying to take advantage of that...We think that the wind is at our backs right now."

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