Like many others, this immigration story begins with a moment of chance. My grandfather came to this country at an early age and, upon disembarking from Ellis Island, found a nickel on the streets of New York City. It was a far cry from the promised pavements of gold hawked by the promotional sellers of tickets to America, but it was something. This poor Polish boy, whose family fled the discrimination and persecution of the pogroms of Europe, had much to look forward to in America. It was a land that afforded much more hope than the old one.
My grandfather learned English, served during World War II and rose to become a vice president of one of the largest telecommunication companies in the nation. He did all of this without a college degree. This story is a familiar one to an immigrant nation such as ours, and I’m proud to be a part of it. It’s an integral part of my family’s identity and our claim to the American experience. Despite this rich tradition, it is becoming harder and harder for immigrants in this country to create a similar story for themselves. The failure of immigration reform to pass the House last summer highlights a crisis in governance that threatens to strangle the engines of innovations America depends on.
The statistics are astounding. With over 52 percent of Silicon Valley start-ups founded by immigrants and an amazing percentage of patents filed at high tech companies originating from people born outside the United States, the value of encouraging immigration should be readily apparent. Innovation is driven by new ideas and those who come from different cultures are readily contributing them. The information economy from which the United States disproportionately prospers is, in part, a product of non-native contributions. This isn’t a recent phenomenon. The most successful civilizations in history have been those that most efficiently incorporated people from outside of their own borders. Rome, during the Republic and afterwards, succeeded magnificently in doing this and made a lasting impression on Western Civilization. People from across the Mediterranean were able to become Roman citizens and contribute to the betterment of society. American success has also been built on a similar model. Yet, increasingly, it is becoming harder and harder for those who are readily capable of making a contribution to stay in America.
Foreign born nationals who receive a permit to attend university in the United States face incredible restrictions upon their graduation. These restrictions make staying in the United States exceedingly difficult. The options available to these students boil down to four choices:
1. Going for more schooling,
2. Applying for an Optional Training Program (which only extends the length of stay for one year),
3. Applying for an H-1B non-immigrant visa with the sponsorship of an employer (However there are only 65,000 H-1B visas available per fiscal year. This limitation exists despite the fact that well over 124,000 persons applied for the program in 2013.), or
4. Return to their country of origin.
The cap on H-1B visas seems particularly strange considering that these students have the sponsorship of employers willing to hire them. Our system is now set up in such a way that those who can and want to work in the United States are being turned away. These are people who would be paying taxes and contributing to the wellbeing of society, and we are willing to place a limit on the number that are allowed to stay. This is ridiculous. While lobbying for immigration reform over the summer, the Republican Senator for Florida, Marco Rubio told the U.S Chamber of Commerce, “We are graduating kids with these degrees and these skill sets. We are then forcing them to leave the country and the jobs are following them over there.” This is a self-imposed brain drain. There is no logical reason that these students who have spent the last four, or however many, years learning at an American university need to take these skills and potential innovations to another country. If they want to stay and work, they should be able too. That’s the promise of America and we should work to fulfill it.
As a summer intern for my Senator’s regional office in San Diego over the summer, I fielded a number of calls regarding immigration. Since it’s near the border, emotions run high and sometimes the worst in people can come out. It’s a hot button issue, to say the least, but everyone would better of remembering that nearly all of us originally came from somewhere else. We all have an immigration story and its part of what makes this country exceptional.
Colin Scott is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.