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Smart immigrants literally are making America great

A steady stream of smart immigrants has historically offered a steroid shot to the U.S. economy. Most people reading this are descended from smart immigrants. This influx of geniuses (or almost geniuses) is at risk as the U.S. government has just suspended “premium processing” of expedited applications for H-1B visas to the U.S. and put forth policies that discourage all immigrants from coming here.

Many international students come to American universities first as their path to American citizenship. At universities, there are high academic standards for entrance that escalate with higher degrees. At America’s top schools, the competition to get a graduate degree is fierce – particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines – the exact disciplines that H-1B visas target. For example, a Ph.D. generally involves being in the top 5 percent of IQs for the country.

If you have not been to a university in the U.S. recently, you might not have noticed that more and more of our American graduate schools are made up of foreign students hoping to get advanced degrees and stay here on H-1B visas until they can get green cards and then eventually become citizens. There are so many students that apply to graduate school positions from foreign countries, it is hard to manage the applications. To make a rough first cut, universities often order potential students in giant spreadsheets by graduate record examination (GRE) scores (for engineering, we normally favor quantitative reasoning). Elite universities often have pages of perfect or near-perfect scores from foreign students wanting to come to America. American students able to compete at this level have become minorities in graduate schools like mine in the middle of Michigan.

These foreign students represent an enormous benefit for America. We get some of the smartest people from other countries to come here for training and then they stay to help our tech sector. They end up living and working in places like Silicon Valley – literally making America great. These smart foreigners are not “stealing” graduate school spots from Americans. They can actually help subsidize domestic students.

This same reasoning holds true even for students of potential enemy foreign countries. Trump’s misguided and legally questionable executive order banned refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, and it placed an indefinite hold on Syrian refugees. It also blocked citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. (The latest version lets in Iraq citizens).

What this means is we are turning away smart people from these countries en masse. This is not a good idea. For example, more than half of the Iranian students that come to America are engineers; over 80 percent come for graduate degrees and nearly 90 percent stay – the highest number of any country – mostly because they are running away from Iran. It is an enormous challenge for them to come here as it is as they must travel out of Iran simply to take the GRE exam. If Iran is truly an enemy country, the last thing we want to do is stop the brain drain, with their smartest citizens coming to the U.S. Worse, turning them away at the border provides Iran with a ton of smart engineers. Why would we want to do that?

Certainly, vet students to ensure they are not terrorists, but do it in a way that shows them respect and maintains their dignity. Then bring as many in as we can – it only makes the U.S. better.

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One of my first graduate students was Iranian. He spoke perfect English, was a hard worker, polite and easy to get along with, and a solid engineer. His thesis covered the design of advanced energy systems using algorithms that learn. He is smart. He now works on projects helping major firms improve their energy efficiency – literally saving companies tens of millions of dollars a year. He lives in Canada. America lost out. And the greatest risk is that other foreign students either stop staying in the U.S. or, even worse, stop coming to America altogether.

It is time we dusted off the red carpet, and started welcoming foreign students and immigrants into the U.S. of A. again.

Joshua Pearce is a professor cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University.

 

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