The Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform Starts Right Here at Columbia

The Trump administration continues to keep U.S. immigration policy at the forefront of its political agenda, solidifying immigration’s place as the biggest sticking point between the parties. Its proposal for the construction of a border wall with the neighboring nation of Mexico continues to weaken our country and prevent us from focusing on real immigration priorities, such as comprehensive reform to include protections for US workers and refugees; a path to residency for those already here in the U.S.; and a permanent guest visa program combined with a robust visa system to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Other Trump initiatives including the “zero-tolerance” policy, the systemic termination of temporary protected status (“TPS”) for a number of countries whose nationals have been in the US for extended periods of time (with nothing to return home to), the assault on the DACA program, and leaving Dreamers uncertain of their future have been nothing less than shameful.

National media coverage focuses on the administration's systemic offensives on illegal immigration. Although the subject of legal immigration receives comparatively less coverage, it remains on the minds of US business and universities. The Trump Administration quietly continues to erect rigid barriers to legal immigration, both temporary and permanent, including limiting options and access for foreign students which led to a decline in their enrollment. A major player in the attack on legal immigration is the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which was created in 2003 to help individuals seeking lawful paths to citizenship. USCIS Director Francis Cissna’s decision to remove the term “nation of immigrants” from the agency’s mission statement sent a clear message that this particular administration is not interested in supporting the estimated 11 million undocumented individuals seeking a path to citizenship. But the attack transcends rhetoric, given that USCIS appears to fancy itself a gatekeeper of sorts. As such, USCIS has systematically been chipping away at US companies’ ability to bring in foreign talent and keep them here. Petitions for approving non-immigrant visas and visa renewals have become increasingly more difficult. The government is attacking applications and changing the rules midstream, even for employees who have been in the United States for years. For an administration that wants to make America great again, they should consider who helped build America in the first place. In 2018, USCIS sent 40% more requests for additional information and evidence than in 2016 to US businesses, and most recently there have been Congressional inquiries surrounding the shocking increases in backlogs, despite high filing fees paid by applicants.

For the Columbia community, this issue should resonate given the impact of these policy alterations or reinterpretations on our peers, alumni, classmates, and possibly even professors. The USCIS practices negatively impact foreign students’ ability to remain and work within the United States following the completion of their degrees and the training periods they are generally afforded. It also impacts graduates, who were hired by US companies, gave up other opportunities abroad, and are now  subject to a high amount of scrutiny during what should be otherwise routine visa applications.

In the grander scheme of things, the Administration’s policies could have an effect on the University itself. A combination of policy shifts and President Trump’s rhetoric has resulted in a decrease in the number of international students applying for F-1 visas; dropping 17% from 2016. After completing studies at accredited US universities, students are authorized to obtain work permits generally for a one year period, otherwise known as “optional practical training.” Students in the STEM fields are able to qualify for an additional 24-month extension, provided  they have a job within the field of STEM, are working for an employer using the government’s E-VERIFY program, and have an approved training program reviewed. Following this process, many US companies seek to permanently hire these students because there is a shortage of American workers in certain STEM areas. Although it seems easy, students are demanded to return back to their home countries after. The Trump administration continues to narrow employment options for F-1 visa holders. Contrarily, consequences for violating the term limits for F-1 visas have grown exponentially, creating a culture of fear and distrust amongst international student populations. Students have grown afraid of traveling home in fear of being denied a visa to return or entry at a US border, such as JFK airport.

The fate of optional training program and non immigrant visa categories, like the H-1B,  will have vast consequences on the future of universities and the American STEM field in particular. By narrowing the requirements of the F-1 visa and similar policies, entire departments and programs concerning the field could suffer. Our community of students contributes in so many ways.  According to Columbia University’s latest available data, approximately 15% of Columbia College, 23% of SEAS, and 10% of Barnard College are international students. The majority of these students pay full tuition and it’s likely that revenue is important to the University, though I do not claim to understand the school’s finances. If we, as a University, are interested in continuing to accept, educate, and even hire foreign students, then we must think about how to ensure their ability to stay in the United States following graduation, should they so desire.

In fairness to the current administration, it’s not all their fault. The immigration system has been broken for over 30 years; it’s just that we don’t need a wall to add insult to injury. Chilling the interest, and the ability, of international students to continue to work and study in the United States, not only has humanitarian complications, it also denies the nation of potential well-educated and well-disciplined members of the economy. Foreign markets have become increasingly more competitive, particularly with regards to STEM, and decreasing the number of foreign students specialized in such fields only works to harm the nation’s viability in the global economy.

While the issue of immigration is a multi-faceted one, focusing on your peers as individuals affected by policy changes in the White House renders the subject more tangible and personal. For while performative acts, such as calls to construct a border wall, are harmful, USCIS Director Cissna continues to advance slight but significant alterations to immigration policy that will have ripple effects close to home. Companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook continue to call upon the Administration to do the right thing. They believe in the importance of new immigrants, and recognize that family and business-driven immigration fuels innovation and allows us to compete globally. The Columbia community does not need to look far to understand that; contrary to USCIS’ updated mission statement, we indeed remain a nation of immigrants.