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Lebovitz '14: STEM degrees for green cards

Mid-September last year, members of Brown's activist student body took to the Main Green in what was the first act in their three-month-long campaign to rally support for the DREAM Act. The proposed federal DREAM Act would have provided undocumented immigrants with U.S. residency in exchange for their academic achievement, specifically graduation from college. It provided an opportunity for the children of illegal immigrants who arrived in the country before the age of 16 to avoid prosecution for an action they likely did not commit, being born outside the United States. The DREAM Act failed in the Senate, but that does not mean the cause is lost. Immigration campaigners should avail their energies on a new initiative: STEM degrees for green cards.

The idea's basic premise is that one of the many drags on our economy is a distinct lack of labor for growth industries like computer technology. In a recent article for The New Republic, Felix Salmon explains, "We're suffering from high unemployment, but that's partly because people can't get to those jobs that are available." As Salmon goes on to point out, we have people who can fill these jobs. Highly skilled immigrants are not employable due to onerous visa policies. Giving out a green card to any foreigner who completed a graduate STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — degree would solve this job disconnect.

Our current immigration policy has misdirected incentives — admitting roughly four times the number of legal immigrants for family reasons than for employment reasons. STEM degrees for green cards helps rectify that problem by incentivizing high-interest educational fields.

To reframe the debate another way, 30.3 percent of engineering degrees awarded in 2007 went to temporary U.S. residents according to a study by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. Why risk losing nearly a third of an industry's potential workforce?

That question dovetails perfectly into addressing the prominent counter-argument to the STEM proposal: There is no labor shortage. Best exemplified in a 2010 Center for Immigration Studies report, the anti-immigration party line states that because U.S. engineering employment has been constant over time, there are no jobs that need to be filled. If there were jobs, then employment numbers would be rising.

 That argument of course misses Salmon's whole point about a skill gap and assumes engineering is a stagnant industry. It is obviously not — just look at Apple's third quarter 2011 net profit of $3.25 billion for proof. If more evidence on the need for more skilled labor is required, maybe Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Hewlett-Packard board member Marc Andreessen can convince you otherwise.

He writes, "Many people in the U.S. and around the world lack the education and skills required to participate in the great new companies coming out of the software revolution. This is a tragedy since every company I work with is absolutely starved for talent."

 Let's not forget that the STEM degrees for green cards plan also hits close to home. According to Brown's Admission Office, 10 percent of undergraduates come from abroad. They are undoubtedly talented students. If they desire to live in the United States and achieve a STEM degree, these students deserve the opportunity to bring their talents to the U.S. in exchange for residency.

 Furthermore, it in essence repackages the thrust of the DREAM Act that students from the Brown Immigrant Rights Committee and President Ruth Simmons fought for. While the plan only provides residency, rather than citizenship, don't forget that "foreign students" is an inclusive term and does not discriminate based on how a person entered the country. Although slimmed down and refocused, STEM degrees for green cards promises the same residency for education trade-off that the DREAM Act did.

 That basic aspiration can be achieved. The STEM degrees for green cards proposal is part of the bipartisan-backed Startup Act, the Kauffman Foundation's model bill designed to reboot the economy. If the dogmatically conservative House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Senator John Tester, D-Mont., can support this program, then it should be able to pass through both chambers of Congress. The partisan gridlock that doomed the DREAM Act may be circumvented.

 It was painful to see the efforts of the DREAM Act supporters go to waste. Political realities have forced immigration reform advocates to scale back their ambitions. STEM degrees for green cards is the first step in what will be a long battle to achieve real substantive immigration reform. It is a smart policy that embodies the American dream, boosts our economy and provides opportunity for our fellow students here and across the country.

I can only hope that this September may yet again be interrupted by pro-immigration reform advocates. It may be wishful thinking, but it's important to understand that every dream has to STEM from somewhere.

Chip Lebovitz '14 is an economics and history concentrator from Gladwyne, Pa.


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