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The sweeping immigration bill approved by the U.S. Senate last week might face difficulty in the House of Representatives, but among officials in Kansas University’s International Programs office, it’s being greeted with cheers.
That’s because, alongside a route to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants and increased border security, the bill also calls for immigration changes that officials say would help KU and other research universities compete for the most talented graduate students and researchers in the world.
“For us to remain viable as a research university, we have to be an international research university,” said Chuck Olcese, KU’s director of international student services. And some of the bill’s provisions would help KU and other American universities keep a global focus, he said.
The bill would give international graduate students in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — a direct, quick path to permanent U.S. residency via a green card after graduation. And foreigners who get Ph.D.s at American universities in any field would have an easier route to a green card than they have now.
That means KU, and other U.S. universities, might have an easier time recruiting talented graduate students and faculty from other countries.
“It’s a very important thing in being able to hire the best and brightest,” said Keeli Nelson, a senior adviser who helps KU faculty and staff with immigration and visa issues in KU’s International Programs office.
Right now, Nelson works with some KU staff and researchers who must wait “years and years and years” for permanent U.S. residency, depending on their country of origin.
Because of immigration quotas, people from India just now becoming eligible for green cards have been waiting since 2004, Nelson said. Chinese nationals have been waiting since 2008.
The bill would allow foreigners with advanced degrees from the United States to bypass those quotas.
“You have to be able to hire international talent when you can find it,” Nelson said.
The law currently allows international students to work in their field for one year in the United States after graduation. At that point, they can apply for a temporary work visa, but they often must be chosen in a lottery to do so.
Those who get jobs working for universities are exempt from the lottery, but even then, it might not be an appealing option for them to remain in the United States. Without being a permanent resident, they might not be able to receive certain federal research grants. And their spouses might be unable to work.
Those changes would make American universities much more competitive for academic talent, Olcese said, especially because the United Kingdom and Australia have actually tightened restrictions on their work visa programs in recent years. Canada’s immigration system, on the other hand, gives preference to researchers when awarding permanent residence, Nelson said, and some KU staff and faculty have considered moving there for that reason.
International students already made up about 16 percent of KU’s graduate enrollment in fall 2012, compared with about 6 percent of its undergraduate enrollment. And KU will only need to increase its international focus if leaders want to boost its global profile, Olcese said.
“The world’s just much more connected, and so if we’re going to be players as a university, even in the United States, let alone in the world, we’ve got to have this perspective of how we’re connected internationally,” Olcese said.