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BrownThink sparks debate on immigration policy in R.I.

Immigration reform contest invites students to offer ideas on pathways for change, centers on local issues

Students, faculty members and policy experts gathered at BrownThink 2016, an undergraduate public policy competition, to discuss immigration policy reform this past weekend.

The competition aims to provide Brown undergraduates who are not necessarily public policy concentrators with an opportunity to take a policy, solutions-based approach to current national and international issues, said Kimberly Meilun ’17, student organizer of BrownThink. Meilun said she founded the organization because she felt there was “a lack of forums (on campus) for students to go and talk about public policies” outside of classes within the department.

The program spanned three days, starting Friday and ending Sunday. The first two days of the program were dedicated to introducing the topic to participants. Sunday, competitors were tasked with conceptualizing and presenting their own public policy solutions, Meilun said.

BrownThink chose immigration as its topic for its inaugural year because of its relevance to the current election cycle, Meilun said, adding that the program hoped to “address as many aspects of this really complicated, personal, controversial issue as we could.”

Not all students who participated in the programs were required to compete, Meilun said. Instead, students learned about immigration policy through discussions and presentations delivered by experts on the subject. Discussion leaders and presenters included Karen Sullivan, a lawyer specializing in international law and immigration policy, and Yalidy Matos, a postdoctoral fellow at the University. Matos held a discussion on the history and distinctions between the classifications of illegal and legal immigrants.

Organizers also sought to frame the topic specifically with regard to Rhode Island, said Carrie Nordlund, associate director of the Public Policy Program, to participants of the event. Not only did the focus on Rhode Island make the topic of immigration more manageable for students, but it also allowed for greater specificity, she added.

Additionally, while national mainstream media often talks about immigration in terms of Central and South American immigrants, the picture of immigration in Rhode Island is demographically different, Nordlund said. It is important to think about the diversity of communities and individuals to whom we are referring when talking about immigration because these communities are culturally distinct from one another, have different needs and require different public policy solutions, she added.

Aaron Mayer ’18.5 competed at BrownThink and said his team structured its policy proposal around the challenge of attracting more high-skilled immigrants to Rhode Island. While the demand for H-1 visas is usually around 234,000 per year, the United States issues only 55,000 for high-skilled workers each year, Mayer said.

Mayer’s team proposed that the federal government issue 65,000 visas at the start of the year and an additional 1,000 each following month, he said. According to the proposal, the visas would be auctioned off to firms — like Google or Apple — looking to fill positions with high-skilled workers, he said. This “highest bidder” formula works because firms that need high-skilled workers the most would be willing to pay the most, he added.

But Mayer’s team did not win the competition in part because its proposal did not focus enough on Rhode Island, he said. The winning team proposed a solution that allowed Rhode Island firms to sponsor low-skilled workers under 18 in a fellowship program. It was difficult to think about immigration only in terms of Rhode Island, Mayer added, because the immigration problem is a national issue.

Nevertheless, Mayer said he found the experience immersive and educational. “I now feel like I gained an expertise, a real mastery” of immigration policy, he said.


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