Like many university presidents, I have often pondered why it is that America – a nation forged by immigrants – would tolerate an immigration system that seemingly denies its origins.
And, as an immigrant, I can empathize both with those who want to offer this nation the benefits of their talent, and with those who would hire them, but are frustrated, bewildered and dismayed by policies that effectively turn productive individuals away.
At the University of Akron we educate thousands of foreign-born students for degrees in the critical fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). These students, often the best and the brightest from their native countries, come to the United States with the same dreams that brought so many other generations of immigrants to our shores. They want to build fulfilling lives, and to make their own unique contributions to this 300-year experiment in freedom and democracy.
There are thousands of high-skilled job openings in the United States, many of them here in Ohio, that go wanting for lack of such advanced skills. Initiatives like the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, of which the University of Akron is a partner, or many of our other endeavors in partnership with our corporate colleagues, hold the promise of creating even more such opportunities in our state. Meanwhile, corporations and businesses press us to produce more graduates who can meet their immediate needs for highly skilled, well-educated employees.
And yet, once we confer degrees upon these international students, they become subject to a rigid and complicated visa system. They often are forced to wait years to regain access to this country. Many never do, and thus take their talents elsewhere.
We invest a great deal of time, energy, and money into these students. But because of the current immigration system, we send them back to their home-countries where many go to work for our competitors. The situation is analogous to an aspiring athletic team that trains and develops superior athletes, only to send them away even before they can demonstrate their prowess.
With every foreign-born graduate we turn away, our economy takes a double hit. That is because among these foreign-born graduates, there are a large number of innovators and entrepreneurs.
Many of these individuals start new companies as part of a start-up company while they are still students at U.S. universities. Often these companies provide good American jobs, with strong potential for further growth. But all those jobs disappear when we make it too difficult for these young entrepreneurs and engineers to obtain visas. They have no choice but to relocate their businesses.
If we do not reform our immigration system, this pattern will continue and we will continue to forfeit thousands of jobs every year and deny America additional economic growth.
Fortunately, there are promising signs that our government is beginning to recognize the need for reform. In Congress, the bipartisan Gang of Eight recently proposed a plan that includes many sensible solutions to modernize the system. Each day, more and more members of Congress are stepping forward to support this needed reform.
I encourage Ohio’s senators, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, to support and pass immigration reform legislation. By doing so, they will demonstrate that Ohio is a state that values progress more than partisanship.
Proenza is the president of the University of Akron.