The United States Can't Afford a Broken Immigration System

August 01, 2016

By Heather Stewart

International students and professionals are critical to the strength and well-being of communities across the entire United States, yet their impact is too often overlooked or taken for granted. By delaying meaningful immigration reform, we risk losing the valuable contributions made by these immigrants.

Our Healthcare System Relies on Foreign-Born Professionals

Our healthcare system relies on foreign-born workers, and the demand for medical professionals from outside our borders will only increase. Currently, twenty five percent of physicians and surgeons working in the United States--plus comparable portions of other healthcare positions--were born elsewhere.

As the baby boomer population ages, they will increasingly need more medical care. In addition, their retirements will create a deficit of doctors, surgeons, nurses, health aids, dentists, pharmacists, and clinical techs. As a result, the ability to provide healthcare will be significantly strained, furthering a need for immigrant healthcare professionals.

America also needs more primary care physicians and doctors willing to work in rural areas. U.S.-born doctors tend to gravitate to higher paying specialties as opposed to primary care, and also favor urban areas. As the country continues to diversify, we have a growing need for physicians who can communicate with their patients understand their cultures.

To ensure we have a functioning healthcare system, we must attract and retain foreign-born health care professionals to the United States. However, it isn’t easy.  In order to practice their professions, foreign-born healthcare professionals must navigate and overcome visa and immigration limitations, additional educational requirements, tuition, licensure, relocation expenses, and potential lower pay to practice here. U.S. immigration law must be addressed to meet the looming shortage, and fulfill the needs of rural areas.

Our Economy Relies on Foreign-Born Professionals

It’s not only our physical well-being that is dependent on international professionals, but our economic well-being as well. Twenty-one of the 87Icon PDF 16 privately held U.S. companies valued at $1 billion or more – companies called “unicorns” due to their rarity –were founded by individuals who first came to the United States as international students. That means former international students are directly responsible for the hiring of thousands of U.S. employees every year and many more indirectly. In addition to having inspiring stories of success and pursuit of the American Dream, they are also a driving force in our economy.

Unfortunately, our outdated, broken immigration system stifles of the opportunities for international entrepreneurs and corresponding jobs. A program known as Optional Practical Training (OPT) is one way international students can stay in the United States after graduating from U.S. colleges and universities. OPT allows graduates to continue their learning through related employment.  Most may stay for up to a year, although graduates with science, technology, engineering, or math degrees are able to stay for up to three years. This extension can prove pivotal in establishing new companies and careers. One founder of a billion dollar company called OPT “The best thing the U.S. government has done on immigration…to allow international students a chance to stay and work for a time after graduation.Icon PDF 16 Remarkably, there are few options for even the most successful international entrepreneur to remain in the United States to continue pursuing a dream when OPT ends.

Beyond creating billion dollar companies, the 974,926 international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $30.5 billion and supported more than 373,000 jobs to the U.S. economy during the 2014–2015 academic year, according to NAFSA’s latest analysis. International students’ financial contributions to our communities are a steady economic gain for the country.

We ignore the contributions of international students and foreign-born professionals to our detriment. There’s a saying (with many variations) “where you sit is where you stand.” Where you are in your life, what you and your family have experienced impacts what you think. If you are a person sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to be treated, or sitting in an employment office hoping for a job, you should stand in favor of immigration reform.


Heather Stewart is counsel and director of immigration policy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators.


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