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Retaining International Student Graduates
5 Policy Proposals for Congress

Read the new FWD.us report, "Retaining U.S. International Student Graduates to Win the Global Talent Race" here

Shot of a group of university students working on computers in the library at campus

New analysis from FWD.us shows that the United States could retain more than 100,000 U.S.-educated international student graduates each year, helping to fill millions of vacant Congress should pass legislation to increase retention of international graduates by expanding legal immigration avenues.job openings in critical industries of the future, boosting the economy by more than $200 billion this decade, and significantly strengthening our global competitiveness.

While our analysis shows that the opportunity to stay in the country is a clear motivator for prospective international students, the dim prospects for their ability to stay in the U.S. after they graduate are increasingly motivating prospective students to consider studying elsewhere, restricting the talent pipeline and weakening the U.S. workforce.1

Below are five legislative proposals that Congress can work on now to better retain international students in the U.S. by expanding legal immigration avenues.

Congress should establish a dedicated green card pathway on the basis of U.S. education that isn’t tied to sponsorship by an individual’s employer or family.

1| Establish direct pathways to permanent residency

International student graduates of U.S. colleges and universities should have a direct pathway to attain permanent residency (a green card).

Congress should establish a dedicated green card pathway on the basis of U.S. education that is not dependent on sponsorship by an individual’s employer or family.2 This would allow graduates to remain in the U.S. after graduation, which is especially important for individuals with degrees in critical fields like STEM disciplines and healthcare.3

Congress could also establish a direct pathway by exempting certain international graduates from numerical limits on employment-based green cards, thereby expanding access to existing immigration avenues. The America COMPETES Act (H.R. 4521), recently introduced in the House of Representatives, takes this approach by exempting STEM PhD holders from those numerical limits. This would ensure that graduates are able to begin work immediately after graduating and are not stuck in backlogs.

A dedicated post-graduate visa would relieve pressure on the heavily oversubscribed H-1B visa program.

2| Establish a post-graduate work visa and formalize OPT

In addition to a direct pathway to permanent status, Congress should also establish a true temporary post-graduate work visa for international student graduates.4

As our analysis shows, not all international graduates will want to stay in the U.S. permanently; a temporary work visa would allow them to contribute their skills after they graduate, and could provide a bridge to permanent status should they change their minds and seek to stay using existing immigration pathways. A dedicated post-graduate visa could also relieve pressure on the heavily oversubscribed H-1B visa program.

Were Congress to establish a postgraduate work visa, it must not replace Optional Practical Training (OPT), which is directly tied to a student’s course of study and is a valuable part of their education experience. Congress should instead pass legislation to authorize the OPT program formally, and the Biden Administration should do whatever is possible to strengthen it in the meantime.5

With these protections in place, and persistent job shortages in these key industries, there is no reason to limit artificially the number of graduates who are able to remain and work in the U.S.

3| Exempt advanced degree holders from H-1B caps

Until Congress establishes a post-graduate work visa, it should ensure international student graduates who have earned advanced degrees from U.S. colleges and universities have full access to the H-1B visa program by exempting them from annual numerical caps.

Congress has mandated that 20,000 H-1B visas be set aside for workers with advanced degrees from U.S. colleges or universities; however, the number of applicants who qualify for this exemption has surpassed 90,000 in recent years, greater than the entire annual 85,000 H-1B visa cap. The cap restrictions guarantee that significant numbers of international graduates will be denied a chance even to apply for a visa. Exempting advanced degree holders from these caps would help ensure that all graduates can access the program.

The H-1B visa already has strict qualifications; workers being sponsored need a bona fide job offer in hand, and the sponsoring employer pays significant fees and must secure approval from the Department of Labor for the offered wage and working conditions. With these protections in place, and persistent job shortages in these key industries, there is no reason to limit artificially the number of graduates who are able to remain and work in the U.S.

“It’s silly to pretend that students don’t want to stay, or that we don’t want and need them to.”

4| Permit ‘dual-intent’ for student visas

Congress should pass legislation designating student visas (e.g. F-1) as “dual-intent,” similar to H-1B visas, allowing students to enter on a student visa even if they plan on remaining in the country after graduation.

Current immigration law prohibits international students from being granted a visa if they believe they demonstrate “immigration intent,” meaning that immigration officers are supposed to deny a prospective student their visa if they believe the student is intending to remain in the country after their visa expires upon the completion of their studies. Theoretically, this ensures that students are only being admitted for the purpose of their visa, which is to study; however, this policy directly undermines the goal of retaining these students after graduation. It’s silly to pretend that students don’t want to stay, or that we don’t want and need them to.

Even with dual intent, graduates would still have to qualify for an immigration avenue to stay and work after finishing their studies; this policy change would simply acknowledge the reality that an incoming international student might reasonably want to stay longer than the time of their study, and would facilitate their transition to other immigration categories.

"Many international graduates go on to start their own companies in the United States.“

5| Create an entrepreneur visa and expand existing entrepreneur parole

A startup visa would give aspiring entrepreneurs a clear pathway to remain in the U.S. so that they can start their companies, contribute to the economy, and drive innovation and create jobs for Americans. This is particularly important in regions of the country struggling with economic and demographic growth. Congress could include requirements for entrepreneurs to demonstrate the growth and job creation potential of their venture.

In the meantime, the Biden Administration should expand the existing DHS Entrepreneur Parole Program by methods like, for example, allowing more than three entrepreneurs per start-up entity, and allowing individuals to work for more than just their own start-up business.6

Many international graduates go on to start their own companies in the United States. In fact, analysis from the National Foundation for American Policy shows that a quarter of billion-dollar startups were founded by international graduates of U.S. colleges and universities. Unfortunately, the lack of a dedicated immigration pathway for entrepreneurs7 makes this a difficult process with many barriers, holding back our economic growth and preventing the creation of new jobs.

"While new immigration programs would help prospective students see a future in our country, the existing system is overwhelmingly burdened by delays and outdated policy.

Modernizing the immigration system for the future

The recent declines in international student enrollments and prospective students’ increasing skepticism about the U.S. has been driven in part by the failings of our current immigration system as it exists today. While new immigration programs would help prospective students see a future in our country, the existing system is overwhelmingly burdened by delays and outdated policy.

Simple reforms, like eliminating discriminatory per-country caps, recapturing wasted visas, ensuring that children and dependents are not harmed by delays in processing and backlogs, and allowing spouses of workers to work and help support their families would reduce these burdens and expand opportunities for new immigrants. These reforms have historically received strong bipartisan support, and would maximize the benefits of expanded immigration for all Americans.

Get in touch with us:

Andrew Moriarty

Deputy Director of Federal Policy

Notes

  1. Related research from TechNet predicts that the worsening talent shortage of workers with a post-secondary degree will result in more than 9 million job vacancies and $1.2 trillion in lost production over the next decade, if not addressed.
  2. The Department of Homeland Security recently updated its policy manual with clarifying guidance on how certain individuals with advanced degrees in STEM fields and entrepreneurs can qualify for national interest waivers, which waive the job offer requirement and allow individuals to sponsor themselves for green cards. While this does expand access to green card pathways for some STEM graduates, the definition of STEM is limited (notably not including health sciences and other healthcare related fields), and are only granted on a case-by-case basis, requiring substantial evidence from the applicant.
  3. This could also establish a path to lawful status for certain immigrants, like DACA recipients, who have grown up in the U.S. but are otherwise prohibited from adjusting status.
  4. For example, Canada offers a postgraduate work permit for international student graduates that can be easily transitioned into permanent residency. Similarly, Australia and the U.K. offer many pathways for international student graduates to stay and work.
  5. The Biden Administration recently announced that 22 new fields of study have been added to the list of STEM fields eligible for the 24 month OPT extension. While this is welcome news and does expand access to OPT for some graduates, many critical fields, including those in health sciences, are glaringly omitted. And even with this expanded access, graduates will still face the same barriers to accessing permanent pathways.
  6. The Biden Administration has recently announced updated policy guidance for adjudication of O-1A nonimmigrant visas and national interest waivers for green cards on behalf of certain STEM professionals, both of which are also potential avenues for foreign-born entrepreneurs. Again, these avenues are still limited and not sufficient to function as a dedicated pathway for entrepreneurs.
  7. International Entrepreneur Parole only offers limited parole for foreign-born founders,having narrow requirements and does not offer a direct pathway to a green card. Congresswoman Lofgren has introduced the LIKE Act, which closely matches the contours of the International Entrepreneur Rule but does provide a pathway to permanent residency. A version of this legislation is also included in the recently introduced America COMPETES Act (H.R. 4521)
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