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America is a nation of immigrants. In truth, our history cannot be told without the contributions of immigrants from everywhere in the world — sometimes with their families, sometimes all alone — to escape poverty and persecution, pursue their dreams, and live and work in a free country. Moving forward, we should remain true to our American heritage of being a welcoming place.
However, our current federal immigration system is badly broken and makes it difficult to honor both our best principles and our rule of law. With an immigration overhaul the center of a national discussion, the House Judiciary Committee, under Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., has begun what I hope will be a comprehensive look at our immigration system through a series of important hearings. The proper way to consider potential changes is through an open and deliberative legislative process.
During a full committee hearing on Feb. 5, I specifically asked witnesses representing divergent viewpoints on immigration changes whether our immigration policies should be based on our own national interests. The unanimous answer was yes.
Unfortunately, one area where we are falling woefully short in this regard is in our treatment of highly skilled immigrants in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
As an example, the University of Alabama at Birmingham attracts top students, faculty and researchers from around the world. They make immediate contributions to the life of the university and the economy of the Birmingham area, which has a growing technology and research sector. There are those who desire to remain in the community and the U.S. and could use their advanced scientific and technology training to enhance local economic growth. From a national perspective, U.S. leadership in STEM fields is critical to promoting innovation and our economic competitiveness.
However, because our immigration policy does not take advanced skills into account for admission as systematically as countries such as Australia and Canada do, talented students and innovators wind up leaving the U.S. and competing against us. Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur and educator with close links to some of our major universities, testified during our committee hearing, “We need to stop this brain drain and do all we can to bring more engineers and scientists here.” This can be done while fully ensuring opportunities for our trained American students and graduates. In fact, it could well be a multiplier effect on jobs several times over.
This issue was highlighted in the House last session through approval of the STEM Jobs Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, that would have made more green cards available to highly trained foreign graduates of U.S. universities. There are many constructive and sensible ways to improve immigration policy to ensure that America does not lose the highly skilled graduates and entrepreneurs developed here who have contributed to job creation and economic development and would continue to do so.