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Op-Ed

Immigration: A wider better welcome mat

The U.S. should do more to welcome and keep talented foreign students.

May 21, 2013|By Linda P.B. Katehi
  • College student Valeria Trujillo, 20, left, joins other children of undocumented immigrants at a press conference. In California, during the decade from 1995 to 2005, immigrants founded 2 of every 5 engineering and technology startups. In the Silicon Valley, they founded more than half.
College student Valeria Trujillo, 20, left, joins other children of undocumented… (Los Angeles Times )

As an immigrant and an engineer, I know the magnetic pull that the United States exerts on anyone who dreams of a career in science. From the time I watched NASA technicians on television during the first lunar landing in 1969, I resolved to get the best scientific education that my talents and circumstances would allow.

That quest initially took me to National Technical University in Athens, where I became the first person in my family — and the first woman from Salamis, the Greek island where I grew up — to earn a college degree. My next step was UCLA.

Like so many others, I was drawn to the United States by its great research universities, its rich support of science — and its open doors.

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But where once the United States was the brightest beacon for students like me, today Britain, Australia and other nations offer increasingly attractive alternatives. And they can seem more welcoming.

When my husband and I decided to come here to study in 1979, we easily received visas and green cards, and in 1994 we became citizens. Today's international scholars face a more arduous and uncertain path to permanent residency for themselves and their families. Application costs, for example, have risen dramatically in recent years and are prohibitively expensive for many new PhDs. It doesn't help that fees must be paid in cash. In addition, security and technology export checks, while important, are more unpredictable and onerous than they need to be.

Now that Congress is undertaking the first major overhaul of U.S. immigration law since 1986, we have an opportunity to reexamine policies that may be harming our competitiveness when it comes to foreign students and scholars, especially in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields.

Unless we offer international students the opportunity to pursue their careers, pay off their student loans and, if they wish, put down roots here after they graduate, it will be hard to attract the best and the brightest.

Eight leading higher education organizations, including the Assn. of American Universities and the Assn. of Public and Land-grant Universities, have developed guiding principles that should be included in comprehensive immigration reform.

These include offering more green cards for graduates in fields that will enhance U.S. innovation and competitiveness, and eliminating the requirement that international students seeking to enroll in a U.S. university prove they will return home after completing their studies.

We also must provide an expedited path to citizenship for the approximately 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school in the U.S. each year, many of whom have little or no memory of the countries from which they came. In 2011, California passed the Dream Act, which offers undocumented students access to state-funded financial aid for college, but these students are still unable to legally work once they graduate. How much more talent are we willing to waste at a time when talent is so needed?

Reform should include as well a provision allowing H-1B visa recipients to revalidate their temporary visas in the U.S. rather than having to return to their home country to do so — an expensive and disruptive requirement, especially for people who are just starting their careers.

Recent history tells us that all Americans will benefit from such reforms. In California, during the decade from 1995 to 2005, immigrants founded 2 of every 5 engineering and technology startups. In Silicon Valley, they founded more than half. In 2005, immigrant-founded companies produced $52 billion in sales nationally and employed 450,000 workers. In 2006, foreign-born residents submitted more than 25% of all U.S. patent applications.

In my role as chancellor of UC Davis, I see such contributions every day. I think of Carlito Lebrilla, who came from the Philippines to study chemistry at UC Irvine and UC Berkeley, and Kit Lam, an immigrant from Hong Kong who received his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas, his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin and his medical degree at Stanford. Now members of the UC Davis faculty, these brilliant men have developed and are bringing to market technology that may give us a way to diagnose cancer earlier and less invasively.

I also think of Ming Kuang. Ford Motor Co. owes much of its hybrid vehicle program to Kuang, an immigrant from China whose name is on 40 of the company's 461 patents for hybrid technology. Kuang earned his master's in mechanical engineering at UC Davis in 1991.

These and many others before and after them came to UC Davis to study, teach and do research, and stayed to create the technologies and startups that will keep this state and nation competitive: Ralph Algazi from France, Anh-Vu Pham from Vietnam and Jan Hopmans from the Netherlands, to name a few more.

But would they have come under today's more stringent rules, at a time when other countries are rolling out the welcome mat?

Wise immigration reform will ensure that we not only continue to open our doors to the world's best talent and future leaders but also invite them to stay and give back.

Linda P.B. Katehi is chancellor of UC Davis. She holds 19 patents in electric circuit design.

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