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Viewpoints: Immigration policy threatens area’s transformation to a knowledge-based economy

By Paul Tesluk
Special to The News

One hundred years ago, my grandparents fled famine, war and political and social upheaval in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States, arriving shortly thereafter in Buffalo. Without knowing the language or culture, and with no family, money or formal education, they managed to start a small business serving a growing workforce that made Buffalo one of the key industrial cities of the early mid-20th century. Understanding the importance of education, they made sure that their four children went to college. Those children went on to pursue graduate degrees in medicine, law and pharmacy, and used their education to contribute to their communities here in Western New York and elsewhere.

My family’s experience as immigrants and the transformative role of higher education in integrating immigrants into American society and enabling upward mobility, economic advancement and benefiting the broader community is not unique. In fact, it has played out millions of times and is an important part of what made America great. The combination of immigration and our higher education system is still a powerful factor for our economy, although it has evolved. Over the last several decades, U.S. universities have grown to be recognized as the best in the world, attracting the brightest and most ambitious minds (what economics sometimes refer to as “human capital”) from around the globe.

However, recent actions by the Trump administration to restrict immigration are sending a clear signal that the U.S. is no longer welcoming to immigrants and international students. These actions include the travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries, a significant reduction in the nation’s refugee resettlement program and an aggressive crackdown on immigration specifically directed at sanctuary cities, as well as the lack of a clearly defined set of immigration and employment policies for foreign workers.

Even more threatening to our country’s ability to attract top international talent are changes the Trump administration is making to international employment and student visa programs. Specifically, the H-1B visa program, which allows highly skilled international workers to stay and work in the U.S. for up to three years, has suspended its expedited program and legislation being drafted may significantly reduce the number of visas issued. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security has advanced a proposal to require international students to renew their F-1 student visa annually, a process that would be extremely burdensome and discourage students from attending U.S. universities and add millions in unnecessary administrative costs and wait times and increase government bureaucracy.

The combined negative effect on immigration is endangering the U.S. economy, and it is a particular threat to our region, which is in the midst of fundamental transformation to a knowledge-based economy driven by technology and innovation. As dean of the University at Buffalo School of Management, the largest, highest-ranked and most comprehensive business school in the SUNY system, as well as in the region, we have a long history of serving as a global business school and educating and training business professionals and leaders in the region.

In 1984, we were the first U.S. business school to establish an MBA program in China. Today, we have programs, international partnerships and exchanges in such global locales as Singapore, Eastern Europe, India and Africa. The most significant part of our global presence, however, is in educating students from around the world who come to one of our degree programs in management. In the UB School of Management, approximately 20 percent of our 3,000 undergraduate students and one-third of our nearly 1,000 graduate students come from overseas.

Many of our international students return to their countries of origin to use their knowledge and understanding of U.S. business practices to build collaborations with the U.S. But many also stay here in the region. They bring critical knowledge and skills to companies and nonprofits, they start new businesses and, particularly important given our region’s demographics, they contribute to our workforce as our working population continues to rapidly age and retire.

Researchers have found that a global mindset and cultural agility can be fostered on diverse college campuses that successfully promote inclusion. And international students help our domestic students gain a better understanding of other cultures and economies, enabling them to become more successful in the 21st century global economy. Surveys of major employers repeatedly point to the importance of a global mindset for companies to compete successfully. Employers also note that it is a quality too often in short supply in today’s workforce.

Early indicators of the negative consequences of the recent anti-immigration rhetoric and policy include a noticeable decline in the number of international students applying to our programs and accepting offers of admission. Our fall 2017 student body will be marked by significantly fewer international students. And, if the current trend toward dramatically restricting employment opportunities for foreign-born workers continues, our international students will have far fewer opportunities to fill critical jobs that companies need in order to successfully innovate and grow.

Our loss in attracting and educating many of the most qualified, talented and ambitious students from across the globe is other countries’ gain. My counterparts – deans at leading business schools in Canada, Europe and Asia – are seeing significant increases in applications to their programs, and enrollments are up as well. Instead of coming to UB and other high-quality business schools in the U.S., the world’s best and brightest are going to universities in other countries. When these international students graduate, they will be more likely to stay and work in those countries, contributing to those economies while our workforce ages and shrinks, and we have fewer domestic college-ready students. This will erode our competitive advantage and undermine our country’s ability to remain a global leader in innovation. It will weaken the U.S. and harm our region. It is a direction we cannot afford to take.

We need an immigration policy that promotes innovation and growth, and particularly one that enables regional economies, like ours in Western New York, to modernize and support economic development and use the capabilities of our institutions of higher education to attract and educate the best talent from across the globe.

Certainly, we need to have secure borders and we need to provide assistance to American workers to be successful in a global economy, but these needs do not require us to forsake our future and go against the very values, policies and institutions that made America great.

The first place to start is to modernize our H-1B visa program by increasing the number of positions available. The industry need for more high-tech talent with business skills is clear. Employers routinely tell me about the need for highly educated and skilled employees in such areas as business analytics and information technology management. Additionally, the antiquated lottery system that has made it easy for some outsourcing firms to take advantage of the program and use it as a means to supply low-cost foreign technical labor that cost Americans’ jobs needs to be replaced.

An important change is for the H-1B program to adopt a competitive bidding process to ensure that U.S. companies’ skill needs are matched with the right type of talented foreign-born workers who, ideally, are educated and trained here in the U.S. Additionally, any potentially legitimate security concerns that might be motivating the DHS proposal to take the radical step to move to an annual reapplication process for F-1 student visas should be carefully considered. The DHS should explore solutions other than requiring all international students to reapply for their visas every year that do not threaten to add administrative burdens that will effectively dissuade potentially millions of bright and talented international students from attending our universities.

The solutions for modernizing our immigration policies exist. What is missing is the political courage and will. We need to demand that our political leaders take action and advocate for an approach to immigration that supports economic growth and innovation by helping to attract and provide opportunities for those with the knowledge, skills and ambition needed to promote innovation. Further, we need an informed approach to address the underlying issues in our economy where immigration is often conveniently identified as a scapegoat.

The economic data are quite clear that a far greater threat to domestic jobs is posed by demands for new and updated knowledge and skills due to rapidly evolving changes in industry compared with immigration and foreign workers. We need to invest in job training and skills programs that match industry needs and prepare our existing and future workforce to compete in a global economy.

We need to return to the values that have played an important role in shaping the success of our country by being open and receptive to those with talent and ambition and using higher education as a way to educate and integrate those who come from abroad. The anti-immigrant rhetoric needs to shift to a dialogue on how we can create an immigration policy and a set of practices that balance security with promoting growth and enabling innovation. This would be a major step forward in making America great again.

Paul Tesluk has been dean of the University at Buffalo School of Management since April 2016, and a UB faculty member since 2011.

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