NAFSA is the world’s largest association of international education professionals, with some 10,000 members in the United States and nearly 100 other countries. We welcome the opportunity to present our views in support of comprehensive immigration reform.
Most of our members are employed at colleges and universities throughout the United States. They manage the essential flow of academic talent—students, scholars, and researchers—between their institutions and the global community. The pre-eminence of America’s leading research institutions, the excellence of faculty, the ability of our students to learn globally and to be globally engaged, and the ability of talented international students and scholars to study and conduct research in the United States, all depend on this flow. Our members thus have a strong interest in immigration policies that enhance the ability of talented individuals from around the world to access our country and, if they so desire, to pursue careers here for the betterment of America.
What is comprehensive immigration reform and why do we support it?
NAFSA supports comprehensive immigration reform, first, because we believe it is essential for our country. An immigration regime that works for America would provide for: (1) effective immigration enforcement, including both border security and interior enforcement; (2) visa reform, including employment-based visas and family-based immigration; and (3) resolution of the status of some 11 million undocumented people living in the United States, which would provide aspiring citizens who meet eligibility criteria with a roadmap to citizenship.
But we also support it because we believe that: (1) a comprehensive bill is the most likely vehicle for the provisions regarding high-skilled immigration that are essential to our members; (2) the current dysfunctional immigration regime places limits on our ability to maintain a dynamic system of educational and scholarly exchange; and (3) our immigration system is an important part of the face that the United States presents to the world; if we are viewed as an unwelcoming, suspicious country, talented people will be less inclined to come here.
A comprehensive approach to immigration reform should be based on fairness, facts, and a shared future:
• Fairness—We urge Congress to seek solutions that address the needs of the country while at the same time striving for solutions that are fair for the individuals and families affected. We should strive for equity in spirit and execution.
• Facts—Overheated hyperbole, stereotypes, and uncorroborated statements won’t get us anywhere and only inject more division. We urge Congress to seek vetted, well-researched, relevant information that can move us toward unbiased, balanced solutions.
• Shared future—The decisions that Congress makes will have long-term consequences for individuals, families, communities, and who we are as a nation. We urge Congress to seek solutions that embrace our identity as a nation with a long tradition of welcoming immigrants.
Issues in the bipartisan Senate framework:
Congress must provide a path to citizenship that is real.
In that spirit, NAFSA congratulates the bipartisan group of Senators for joining together to craft a framework for immigration reform that works for America, which addresses the pillars of immigration reform referenced above. In drafting legislation to implement this framework, however, Congress must take care to provide a path to citizenship that is real. This is best achieved by (1) ensuring the availability to green cards, and (2) ensuring that citizenship is conditional only on eligibility criteria, and not on the achievement of unrealistic conditions unrelated to the suitability of the individual who aspires to citizenship.
Applying for permanent residency (green cards) is the first step on the road to citizenship. Once the applicant possesses the green card, current law provides the rest of the roadmap to citizenship. The bipartisan framework appropriately requires that undocumented immigrants who aspire to citizenship go to “the back of the line” in the wait for green cards. But that requirement is only reasonable if green card caps are raised sufficiently to assure the availability of green cards. Absent that, the requirement to go to the back of the line can constitute an effective denial of citizenship, because the wait could last a lifetime. The framework is silent on this issue; it must be addressed in the legislation.
Both the bipartisan framework and President Obama’s plan provide similar eligibility criteria that undocumented immigrants would have to meet in order to embark on the path to citizenship. But the bipartisan framework goes farther, stating that the process for receiving a green card could not begin until two conditions are met which are extraneous to the eligibility criteria and are beyond the control of the intended beneficiaries: Eligibility for a green card is made “contingent upon our success in securing the borders and addressing visa overstays.”
With respect to securing our borders, extensive research by the Migration Policy Institute, the Washington Office on Latin America, and others has documented that the southwest border is as secure today as it has ever been, due to the devotion of unprecedented resources to the task. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “today there is no net new illegal immigration from Mexico for the first time in 40 years.” This pillar of comprehensive immigration reform has largely been implemented. No border is or ever will be perfectly secure.
With respect to visa overstays, it is indeed desirable to know who overstays their visa and remains in our country illegally. It is also extremely difficult. Visa overstays have always been with us, and probably always will be. A requirement for an entry-exit system has been on the books for years. The fact that the system is not in place reflects the enormous challenges inherent in creating it.
To make green cards and eventual citizenship for 11 million residents of this country conditional on the unachievable goals of perfect border security and perfect control of visa overstays would be self-defeating in the extreme. One of the reasons the United States has been such a successful country is that we have integrated generations of immigrants over the course of our history, providing ways for them to advance to full citizenship. We have never been comfortable with the existence of a permanent underclass of people who could not aspire to citizenship. This wise principle and these successful precedents should continue to guide us in the current debate. The provision of citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants constitutes wise public policy. It does not make sense to condition wise public policy on the achievement of conditions that may never be met.
Specific provisions needed to facilitate access for talented people.
Today’s world of global mobility bears little resemblance to the reality in 1952 when the basics of U.S. immigration law were created. Our current, dysfunctional immigration system impedes our ability to foster a robust system of educational and scholarly exchange. A new, sustainable policy is needed that allows individuals freedom of movement and reflects our values as a nation.
NAFSA supports creating an immigration process that serves our nation’s current needs, including the following specific provisions of immigration law.
Green card reforms
The legislation should contain a viable package for green card relief, including some or all of the following provisions:
• Increase the number of green cards available annually.
• Recapture unused employment-based green cards from prior fiscal years to help eliminate the backlog.
• Stop counting spouses and minor children against the employment-based green card cap. More than half of all employment-based green cards go to the spouses and children of workers.
• Exempt international student graduates with a direct path to green card status, outstanding researchers, and professors from the limit on the number of employment-based green cards that may be issued annually.
• Eliminate annual per-country limits, with a possible phase-in period.
• Increase green cards for specific priority levels.
The legislation should provide relief through the DREAM Act to children raised in the United States who lack immigration status.
The legislation should create a direct path to green card status for foreign students, including protection from long adjudication timeframes by extending immigration status from when a green card petition is filed until it is adjudicated (as is done for H-1B green card petitioners).
The legislation should allow green card applicants to retain their places in line while waiting for green cards to become available. It should vest this place in line, known as a priority date, with the employee so that it is easier for foreign workers to change employers, because doing so will not make them move to the back of the green card line.
The legislation should provide age-out protection for children. Immigrants petitioning for a green card may include their spouse and children in the petition. Unfortunately, if there are backlogs or long-delayed decisions, children who turn 21 while waiting become ineligible for a green card based on their parent’s petitions.
The legislation should:
Eliminate the “nonimmigrant-intent” requirement for foreign students in F status by extending dual intent to include them. The decades-old requirement that intending immigrants are ineligible for student visas goes against the current reality that we do in fact want many of these people to stay. It defies logic to say that they can stay but they cannot intend to do so. As the visa officer cannot divine intent, this requirement encourages gaming the system that makes for arbitrary and capricious visa decision-making that does not serve us well.
Expand employment options for foreign students and exchange visitors in the F-1 and J-1 categories, both during the school year and during breaks. This would help the United States in the international competition for talented foreign students.
Allow short-term study (up to 90 days) on a tourist (B) visa. An appropriate visa does not exist for people to enter the United States temporarily for purposes of study, such as to defend a Ph.D. dissertation or to participate in a short summer course. This is an unnecessary impediment to foreign students, which necessitates work-arounds. The United States should adopt the sensible practice of several other countries and permit short-term study on B visas.
Expand opportunities to study for the spouses and children (F-2) of foreign students, and provide work authorization for spouses of H-1Bs and foreign students. This would address another impediment to talented people coming here.
Restore to the Secretary of State the authority to waive personal appearances by visa applicants, subject to policy guidelines approved by the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security. The current blanket requirement that nearly all visa applicants be interviewed increases wait times and requires an enormous diversion of enforcement resources into routine interviews of applicants who present no concerns.
Restore visa renewal in the United States for nonimmigrants in the following categories: E, H, I, L, O, and P. This would enable people in these categories to secure routine visa renewals without having to depart the country and run the risk of not being able to re-enter in a timely manner.
Create a Frequent Traveler Program for international students, researchers, scholars, and business people who enter frequently for the same purpose and with respect to whom no new negative information has arisen since the last visa decision.
Protect current law
The legislation should:
Maintain the H-1B cap exemption for higher education and research facilities.
Maintain special recruitment and documentation procedures, which allow colleges and universities to petition for green cards for the most qualified applicants for positions that include classroom instruction.
Improve the management of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program
The legislation should move the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In addition to maintaining information on schools and exchange programs certified to accept international students and exchange visitors, the SEVIS database tracks the activities of international students and exchange visitors and immigration benefits granted to them. Managing the database falls outside core competencies and mission of ICE, which is to investigate and enforce criminal and civil violations of U.S. immigration law. For ICE and the database to function optimally, the database management should be conducted by USCIS, the immigration benefits granting arm of DHS, with ICE embracing the sole responsibility of responding to potential immigration law violations.