Higher Education’s Stake in the Immigration Reform Debate

May 01, 2012

By Ursula Oaks

Higher education is at its best and most essential when individuals – wherever they may be from – can come together to share knowledge and explore ideas. This is why learning and scholarship have always been grounded in the free movement of people across borders, and why the stakes are so high for higher education in the debate on immigration reform.

Simply put, higher education has no choice but to engage in that debate, because it will define not only what kind of immigration policy the United States constructs for the 21st century (and whether or not that policy works for higher education), but, perhaps even more importantly, what kind of face the United States presents to the world.

International educators, of course, stand closest to the day-to-day manifestations of a broken immigration system on a college campus: It’s the world-renowned scholar who can’t get back to his laboratory in the United States because of a security mix-up; the accomplished spouse of a foreign student who can’t continue his career in the United States for however many years his wife is here in an academic program; the pioneering scientist whose paper won’t be presented in the United States because she is stuck in a visa backlog; the entrepreneurial foreign graduate who can’t pursue his vision for a new business here because there’s no visa category that fits him.

International educators know countless stories like this. They reflect not just costs to individuals and academic departments, though those are enormous. They reflect serious, long-term costs to entire institutions, and by extension, to our communities and to the United States - costs in innovation, knowledge creation, and imagination lost to antiquated, dysfunctional laws and processes. These stories need to be told – to campus leaders, to members of Congress, to the American public – because they illustrate most clearly higher education’s direct stake in the immigration reform debate.

But higher education’s fate is also tied up with the broader immigration debate in the United States today, because it is accepted wisdom that a comprehensive legislative proposal is the most likely vehicle to emerge for the provisions involving high-skilled immigration that most concern higher education. Various stakeholders might like to carve out solutions for their particular issue, but it is clear that none of the specific immigration challenges the United States faces can be addressed effectively without also addressing the others. So we are in this together – with those who are concerned about border security; with those concerned about undocumented immigrants; and with others concerned about attracting global talent.

Indeed the higher education community must recognize, and articulate, the broader ways in which a dysfunctional immigration system harms the academy, well beyond H-1B caps or green card backlogs. It is the harm done by xenophobic, fear-driven policymaking that does not reflect the values of Americans; by a harsh and ineffective approach to border security; and by congressional inertia that keeps the United States stalled in an outmoded immigration policy that ignores the reality of global mobility.  In these ways, the immigration debate has enormous implications for higher education’s ability to attract teachers, scholars, and students from around the world and to fulfill its educational mission of creating a global space for learning for all students.

On April 26, individuals at 300 institutions participated in a NAFSA teleconference on the basics of how higher education can engage on immigration reform. View a recording of that event, and find out more about how you can be a voice for immigration reform at www.ConnectingOurWorld.org/speakout.


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