Why America must get and keep foreign students

Gary Shapiro President and CEO, Consumer Technology Association
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America’s openness, democracy, freedoms, opportunity and diversity have attracted people from all over the world for more than 200 years. People of all nations come to our shores to pursue a better life. Many of the world’s best and brightest students come to America to pursue their passion and earn higher degrees at our prestigious universities. Yet due to our broken immigration system, too many of these students are not permitted to stay once they graduate, sending innovative ideas that could benefit our economy to other nations and costing us countless jobs.

American universities are among the best in the world, and the smartest students from around the globe want to come here to study. According to the Brookings Institution, 21 percent of all international students choose to study in the U.S. The National Science Foundation’s 2013 budget of just over $6 billion funds research at our universities — much of which will be conducted by graduate students from other countries. A report released Thursday by the National Foundation for American Policy reveals that over 70 percent of the 29,977 electrical engineering graduate students and more than 63 percent of the 32,782 computer science students enrolled in the U.S. are from abroad. Similarly, almost half of the physics, mathematics and statistics graduate students are international.

Yet while we educate foreign students in our universities, we turn too many of them away after they receive their degrees. Many of these students earn degrees in critical STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Upon graduation, these students could easily stay, go to work and even launch their own companies in America, boosting our economy and creating jobs. Instead, many of these graduates are not able to get H-1B visas and are forced to return to their countries of origin.

This is bad for our economy, which stands to benefit immensely from the jobs created by skilled foreign workers. In fact, immigrants are responsible for creating more than 40 percent of the current Fortune 500 companies. Just consider AT&T, eBay, Google, SanDisk, Sun, Qualcomm and Yahoo, all of which were founded by immigrants. Others have great ideas to start innovative businesses, but because they cannot get a visa to stay here, they must return to their home countries, where they are snapped up by our competition.

Our unwelcoming stance to graduate students is now starting to affect their desire to study here. The Council of Graduate Schools reports that applications for graduate students from South Korea and Taiwan are down 13 percent, and applications from China are down five percent. The world’s most promising students are now being aggressively pursued by Canada, Australia and Europe. These nations are copying our success formula by attracting foreign talent. Meanwhile, we have changed our strategy from acceptance to ambivalence.

Fortunately, Congress is considering solutions. The Senate has passed legislation that would open up visas for graduate students with degrees in math and science fields. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee recently passed the SKILLS Act, which would create 120,000 visas annually for top students. We must encourage our elected leaders to continue to work together to reach solutions that will attract the best and the brightest from around the globe to bring their talents and innovative ideas to our shores.

An innovative future is not manifest destiny. Foreign talent has been a huge part of our success thus far, and without it we will see our competitive edge slip away. As Congress continues to debate comprehensive immigration reform, we must not lose sight of the non-controversial aspects of reform, especially keeping our doors open to top talent from other nations. Only if we allow the smartest people in the world to keep coming here and encourage them to stay, can we keep our place on top.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.