WASHINGTON - Congress is in the early stages of considering major changes to the nation's immigration laws, changes that would affect not just the status of the 11 million people who arrived in the country illegally but also hundreds of thousands of foreign students and high-skill workers who want to settle in the United States.
One bill, introduced by DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) would expand the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers and make it easier for foreign students studying at U.S. universities in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) disciplines to apply for work visas in the U.S.
"We make changes to student visas to encourage students who get degrees here to stay in this country so that we don't just say 'hey, go back to India or China or some other country and start the next Google over there.' We want you to start it here," said Klobuchar in a speech on the Senate floor introducing the legislation on Jan. 29.
But Klobuchar's assertion is based primarily on anecdotal accounts. The data that exists on foreign STEM students suggests a considerable proportion of PhD graduates, especially those from China and India, do stay in the United States after graduation under the existing immigration system. Comparable information on graduates with bachelors and masters degrees is unavailable.
A 2012 study funded by the National Science Foundation by Michael Finn of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education appears to be the best source for finding out how many foreign STEM PhD graduates remain in the U.S. following graduation.
The study found that two thirds of the foreign STEM PhD graduates in 1999 were still in the U.S. a decade later, a figure that includes graduates on both permanent and temporary visas. Breaking out the numbers for temporary visas, which would be affected by Klobuchar's legislation, the study found that 62 percent of the 2004 PhD graduates remained in the United States as of 2009, a number that Finn said had gradually risen over time.
Contrary to Klobuchar's implication that Chinese and Indian graduates were particularly burdened by visa requirements and forced to head home after their studies were complete, Finn's study shows that 89 percent of Chinese and 79 percent of Indian PhD holders remained in the U.S. five years after their graduation in 2004. Chinese and Indian graduates made up nearly 40 percent of the study's sample.
"I don't see much evidence that the current visa situation is holding back the stay rate," said Finn in an interview with MPR News.
To back up her statement, Klobuchar's office cited conversations the senator has had with Minnesota business and educational leaders. Klobuchar's office contested the validity of the NSF-funded research, saying a study of 2004 graduates was out of date with the current job market and pointing to a 2012 letter to President Obama and congressional leaders signed by many of the nation's university presidents that said, "Every year, arbitrary immigration caps force approximately one-third of the 50,000 foreign-born STEM graduates from our universities to leave the country."
According to her office, Klobuchar believes the 62 percent stay rate for 2004 graduates is too low and that a higher percentage of PhD graduates should be able to remain in the U.S. The senator's office also said that because the study only covers PhD holders, the most coveted graduates, rather than the broader population of foreign STEM graduates with bachelors and masters degrees, it is not representative.
Klobuchar's office said the senator learned about the issue from speaking with university presidents in Minnesota, including Earl Potter, the president of St. Cloud State University.
Potter agreed in broad terms that foreign bachelors and masters STEM students had a difficult time getting work visas in the U.S. even when employers were eager to sponsor them. Some of St. Cloud State's foreign graduates who did not get jobs in the U.S., Potter said, have returned to their home countries where they have launched successful businesses. But Potter said the university did not have data on the issue.
"I don't have statistics, I have anecdotal information. It's one of those things that's hard to track and we have not put those systems into place," said Potter in an interview.
Ultimately, this issue appears to come down to assertions and anecdotes made by Klobuchar and other advocates of easing visas for foreign workers versus solid but incomplete and aging data that focuses solely on the most elite group of foreign STEM graduates, those with PhDs.
The researcher responsible for that data, Michael Finn of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education agreed no good source of information on bachelor and masters students exists, making it difficult to determine how alike the different groups of graduates are when it comes to staying in the U.S. He plans to update the study of PhD students next year.
While careful to avoid policy-specific discussions, Finn expressed frustration with comments from politicians and pundits on the topic, such as Klobuchar's.
"Whenever I see these things, I try to look to see if they have some data to back that up that I didn't know about and I haven't yet found any," said Finn.
That lack of data results in an inconclusive rating for this PoliGraph test.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, "Klobuchar Introduces Immigration Bill to Boost High-Tech Innovation," Jan. 29, 2013, accessed Feb. 12, 2013
Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, "Stay Rates of Foreign Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2009", by Michael G. Finn, January 2012, accessed Feb. 11, 2013
Interview, Michael G. Finn, economist Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, Feb. 14, 2013
Interview, Earl Potter, President, St. Cloud State University, Feb. 15, 2013
Email correspondence and phone calls with Brigit Helgen, Communications Director for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Feb. 14-15, 2013
Letter from university presidents to President Obama and congressional leaders, Partnership for a New American Economy, accessed Feb. 15, 2013
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