Give us your smart, your rich, your innovative masses

New citizens in Prince George, BC take the Canadian oath of citizenship. Photo: Province of British Columbia (Flickr/Creative Commons).
New citizens in Prince George, BC take the Canadian oath of citizenship. Photo: Province of British Columbia (Flickr/Creative Commons).

I defended my dissertation proposal exactly one week ago. In the US doctoral education system, there are a variety of terms to describe this stage in my metamorphosis from BA larva to PhD butterfly. Some say “ATC” (advanced to candidacy), while others say “ABD” (all but dissertation). The local dialect favors ABD.

I’ve always thought that ABD sounded like a huge understatement. To me, it implies that the only remaining hurdle, the dissertation, is not that big of a deal. But that’s not the case! The dissertation is a huge undertaking that dwarfs everything that came before it.

The proposal defense left me with all sorts of things to revise and a long list of questions to answer. However, the major parameters of the project are now fairly well-defined. I’m outlining them here, not only to generate some discussion on the topic, but for me to look back on as I conduct this massive project.

My dissertation compares how international students can stay to work in the US and Canada. Policymakers in both countries have argued that their economies lack skilled workers, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. At the same time, universities in these countries are enrolling large numbers of foreign students, many of whom are studying for STEM degrees.

It would seem that international students are an ideal solution to the perceived skills shortage. They have the skills that employers want, certified with degrees that are easy to recognize. They have also already begun the process of integrating themselves into American or Canadian society. They speak the language well and understand more of the social norms and cultural nuances than foreign workers directly recruited from abroad.

To turn international students into workers, governments must allow them to change their visa status from student to worker or from student to permanent resident. Some governments make this process especially simple for international students, or give them a strong preference in existing processes. One example is Canada’s Express Entry immigration program, which gives strong preference to potential migrants with university-level degrees, work experience in Canada, concrete job offers, and a strong command of English and/or French. The program’s design gives international graduates of Canadian universities a leg up. They have a much easier time meeting all of those requirements than potential migrants coming directly from overseas. For instance, they do not have to get their educational credentials certified. Their study visas allow them to get permits to work in Canada for a few years (depending on the length of their degree program). Their language skills will most likely improve over their years of studying and working. And time in Canada and Canadian work experience make it easier to get a concrete job offer.

The pathway from student to immigrant in the US is far more complex. Students on the most common study visa, F-1, are permitted to work for a total of 12 months under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. The student could use all of the OPT months after graduation, or use some of them for summer internships and the like while completing their degree. Students with STEM degrees get an extra 17 months after graduating. If they want to stay in the US after that, they are most commonly going to see if their employer can sponsor them for an H-1B temporary work visa and for permanent residency down the line. Demand for H-1B visas far outstrips supply, and the wait for permanent residency can be a long one.

The main goal of my dissertation is to figure out why Canada and the US have developed such different strategies for keeping foreign students in the country as workers. I have a hunch that the answer is going to involve the two countries’ different historical paths, their relationship to each other and to the rest of the world, and the way their political systems are set up for interest group involvement. To find the answer, I’ll be looking at documents like government agencies, business groups, and labor organizations. I’ll also interview representatives of these stakeholders to get a different perspective on the policymaking process than I could get from reading documents alone.

Studying the student-to-migrant pathway is important because it is set to change the demographics of wealthy Western countries now and in the future. Politicians are responding to a political climate that is increasingly hostile to undocumented labor migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. Outside of crisis times (like the current European refugee crisis), they often choose to focus the public’s attention on the potential positive economic impacts of highly educated migrants. They promise to reduce inflows of unwanted migrants and increase inflows of skilled workers and students. Late last year, for instance, US President Barack Obama announced measures to clamp down on undocumented border crossing, but also extend the time that student visa holders can work in the US after graduation. The next week, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech about restricting immigration from the EU, but mentioned that any new migration policies would continue to “permit companies to bring in the skilled workers they needed and allowing universities to attract the best talent from around the world”.

Any change in immigration policy will change the social, political, and economic structure of the receiving country. If immigration policies were revamped so that a country would take in more skilled migrants and fewer unskilled migrants, then skilled migrants and their descendants will eventually form a larger proportion of residents and voters. That would likely change the political landscape. A Chinese American engineer is likely to have different political views than a Mexican American farmworker. The influx of skilled foreign workers into the labor force will also change working conditions at the middle and top of the wage structure. When there are more workers available, wages go down.

The existence of policies that explicitly favor international students in immigration processes is fueling and shaping the growth of the higher education sector, creating more incentives to enroll more international students. More students will want to come to a country because there is a greater chance of being able to work there after graduation. Universities will respond to this demand by increasing enrollment. The influx of foreign investment might lead to deeper cuts in state funding.

International students are already changing the face of college campuses in North America and in other wealthy Western countries. In the US, they could potentially become a major immigration stream, as they already are in places like Canada and Australia. Some proposals would even have international students and other skilled migrants replacing unskilled migrants as the largest group of immigrants to this country. What would that mean for the US going forward? This is an issue that really prompts us to think about who “we” are and who we want to be.

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