Letter to Obama asks legislators to help extend visas for foreign-born students

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A letter sent July 2 to President Barack Obama and top-ranking congressional officials signed by leaders from more than 100 American universities — including UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and UC President Mark Yudof — calls for new legislation to allow foreign-born students to stay in the country longer after their student visa expires upon graduation.

According to a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, an immigration reform group composed of mayors and businessman who organized the letter effort, more than three-fourths of all patents which come from the top 10 American research universities have had at least one foreign-born student involved.

The letter comes in an attempt to retain many foreign-born students within the math, science, engineering and technology fields due to their importance to the nation’s research capabilities and economic growth, according to the letter.

 “In 2009, students on temporary visas were 45 percent of all graduate students in engineering, math, computer science and physical sciences — earning 43 percent of all master’s degrees and 52 percent of all PhDs,” the letter reads. “After we have trained and educated these future job creators, our antiquated immigration laws turn them away to work for our competitors in other countries.”

The group’s report, “Patent Pending: How Immigrants are Reinventing the American Economy,” also finds that approximately 54 percent of patents were awarded to foreign-born inventors who are most likely to face visa hurdles, like students, postdoctoral fellows and staff researchers.

 The university ranks first in the number of patents produced by any American university nationwide, according to the report. Campus Graduate Assembly President Bahar Navab noted that many UC Berkeley graduate students face the uncertainty that comes from an expiring visa after graduation.

“There definitely are international graduate students who are facing expiring visas and can’t find jobs in the US, and thus are forced to leave the country for work,” Navab said in an email. “Similarly, there are international graduate students who face pressure to graduate earlier than some of their peers because there often aren’t enough funding sources for international students.”

One such UC Berkeley international graduate student is Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. candidate Shashank Nawathe, who is originally from India and currently studying with an F-1 student visa that will expire six months after he earns his degree next spring.

Nawathe said it would be good for policymakers to find a way to give recent graduates more time to find jobs before their visa expires.

“Students tend to take up whatever jobs they can find, even if this means taking unpaid internships to extend their stay in the country,” Nawathe said.

Nawathe also said his impression was that only a small minority of about 10 percent of graduate students end up leaving the country immediately after graduation but that this departure is usually due to an attachment to their home countries, which students want to return to with their newly acquired knowledge.

While it is crucial to advocate for what Navab called “comprehensive immigration reform,” she said it should not be forgotten that domestic students are also facing a system of mixed incentives. She cited the case of UC Berkeley School of Law students who went into school with the goal of pursuing public interest or government jobs and instead leave school to find jobs based on the highest amount of pay due to excessively high levels of student debt after graduation.

“Many of our graduate students, especially professional students, are facing increasing levels of debt and are facing limited job markets,” Navab said in the email. “We need school administrators to advocate for all of us.”