The mother of immigration reforms and its conundrums.
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: Even as Congress seems determined to come together in a rare show of bipartisanship to undertake the biggest reform of immigration laws since 1986, and the country is set to spread its arms wide to welcome new skilled immigrants, unskilled guest workers, students and rich entrepreneurs, with the promise of a humane approach to their lives in a new land and the guarantee of a fast route to permanent residency for those already here and disillusioned to the point of thinking it might be easier waiting in line for a trip to space instead, new statistics suggest that the end result may not be as pretty for everybody concerned.
Take this conundrum for example: for the first time since 2008, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reached the statutory H-1B cap of 65,000 for the fiscal year 2014 within the first week of the filing period that ended last week. USCIS also received more than 20,000 H-1B petitions from those exempt from the cap under the advanced degree category, those who have graduate degrees from universities here and have received job offers. In total, USCIS received more than 124,000 H-1B petitions.
A lottery system was used yesterday to select applicants. In the next few days if you hear shrieks coming from your house next door, it might be wise to ponder a while before you dial 911: it could be the foreign graduate Ph.D. student living next door having won the USCIS Lotto. If you hear the shrieks followed by smashing of objects, then too don’t call. Just go over and try console the student that the world has not come to an end.
Alright, so there definitely is a big rush to head to the US, by both skilled immigrants and students. Hold on, though. Not so fast.
Take a look at a report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) released today. It’s confounding. The number of international students applying to graduate schools in the United States increased just 1 percent this year, after a 9 percent rise last year and an 11 percent gain in 2011. The increase was the smallest in eight years, the report said.
Even as people from China are buying real estate in the US like they do grocery shopping, the puzzling thing is that there is a 5 percent decline in student applications from China this year, denting their numbers of the approximately one third of the international graduate students in the United States they account for. Graduate enrollment among students from China rose 22 percent from 2011 to 2012, the seventh consecutive year of double-digit growth. Not so this year.
Applications from India though, which sends the second largest number of students, increased by 20 percent this year. Alright, who’s surprised?
Let’s look now at another set of numbers from last week that definitely says more people do want to come to the US. According to the Customs and Border Protection, newly released arrest numbers show a significant increase in illegal immigrants crossing along the southwest border: arrests are actually up 13 percent compared with the same time last year. The number was 170,223 in 2012, and is 192,298 this year. According to the Government Accountability Office, up to 40 percent of those who make it over the southwest border never get caught.
But this conforms to pattern, because as legislation on immigration reforms near, the immigration from the South to the North intensifies. In 1986, when the US passed a reform that granted amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants, the Border Patrol arrested 630,000 people crossing into the San Diego area alone. Last year, fewer than 360,000 people were detained across the entire 2,000-mile border between the US and Mexico, and only 28,500 in San Diego.
Going by these numbers, one can argue that the number of students applying to US universities declined this year because of the dismal jobs scenario here. Since the application process takes 6 months to a year at least, they would not have been able to take advantage of the new zest at Capitol Hill to “staple” Green Cards to students that graduate from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subjects, as GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney had advocated in one of his debates with President Barack Obama.
It may be reasonable to expect that if the immigration reforms, which promises now to do exactly that – to give immediate permanent residency to students who graduate with a degree in STEM subjects – comes through, then more students will be lured to apply to the US, and more shrieks (of delight) will be heard if the H-1B cap restrictions are done away with. Incidentally, applications for the three most popular fields of study – engineering, physical and earth sciences, and business – grew this year, while there was declining interest in studying education or life sciences, according to the CGS report today.
Of course, illegal immigrants will now try everything, from strapping themselves to drones to try get over the new 16-foot-high ocean fence that divides Mexico from the United States, to digging new tunnels like burrowing rabbits – Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures show that 121 tunnels were found between 2006 and 2012 – to get here in time for legal residency.
But in all these figures cited above, the most important, and humbling, would be the 11.7 million Americans searching for work, who got the news last Friday from the Labor Department, who said only 88,000 new jobs were created in March. The weak job growth comes at the same time benefits for the long-term unemployed are shrinking.
So what exactly is the government trying to do?
The government is trying to increase the number of skilled immigrants at a time when jobs growth is almost stagnant. Induct a new guest worker program for unskilled labor when hundreds of thousands of new illegal immigrants are likely to cross over in the next few months, and then compete with the legal ‘guest workers’ from abroad, for low paying jobs. Pave the way for unlimited new student visas with the promise of permanent residency, adding to the number of students already looking for jobs, and hurtling more into the jobless arena.
All this is being done with the outlook that skilled workers and students in STEM subjects will create businesses that will create jobs and increase economic growth.
But perhaps, growth, from new businesses from brilliant entrepreneurs, after perhaps 10 years of a massive influx of immigrants and the crush of it on unprepared communities, on schools, hospitals and social services, may prove to be back breaking for the US.
(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar)
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