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Republicans Are Commodifying Immigrants at the Expense of US Students

(Photo: Michele Piacquadio / Getty Images)

One of the many outrages in the tax bill passed by the House of Representatives on November 16 is the elimination or reduction of tax breaks for many college and graduate school students. Probably the most drastic measure is one that could affect approximately 145,000 grad students now working as low-paid research or teaching assistants. These students might see their federal tax payments rise to as much as $10,000 a year, enough to force many of them to drop out of school. About 60 percent of the students are in the fields known collectively as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

What is especially striking about this measure is that the same Republican politicians that pushed it through the House claim they want to “make America great again.” But the strength of the US economy in the past has depended largely on its leadership in science and technology (although that position has been slipping in recent years). So why would the House Republicans want to shuffle thousands of potential US scientists and technology workers into less stable jobs?

The answer may lie in an immigration reform bill that President Trump endorsed in August.

The misleadingly named RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment) Act, introduced by Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, would reduce legally permitted immigration by half, from about 1 million people a year to some 500,000. Most of the cuts would come out of family reunification visas, which under the bill would only go to spouses and minor children of US citizens and legal permanent residents. Naturalized citizens, for example, would no longer be able to bring their ailing parents to live with them permanently. The RAISE Act would also limit the number of refugees admitted each year to 50,000; previously the president could set higher caps on the admissions, allowing tens of thousands of victims of war and persecution to start their lives over in the United States.

However, the bill would keep the current annual limit of 140,000 for employer-sponsored green cards. The main change for this category would be a systematization of the standards for admission — giving priority, for instance, to younger applicants with proficiency in English and advanced degrees in STEM fields. The bill would also eliminate per-country caps, opening the way for more immigrants from countries with well-developed science and technology sectors, such as China, India and South Korea.

The bill is unlikely to become a law any time soon, but it gives us a sense of the Republicans’ thinking. Recent immigrants already tend to be highly educated; 48 percent of immigrants arriving here from 2011 to 2015 had college degrees, compared to 31 percent of US-born adults. The RAISE Act would bring in a still greater proportion of college graduates while favoring younger immigrants with a background in science and technology. In other words, people who match the profile of the students driven out of careers in science and technology by the House tax bill. Are the Republicans seeing these immigrants as replacements for US-born STEM workers?

Of course this seems to contradict the politicians’ often expressed concern for “middle-class Americans,” but it makes a lot of sense from the point of view of corporate America. After all, producing a homegrown physicist or software engineer requires a considerable investment of resources; immigrant STEM workers come with an education that was largely provided by their countries of origin, often at public expense.

And there’s another advantage. By luring these educated young people here, the United States deprives their home countries of the immigrants’ skills and talents, producing a “brain drain” that weakens the potential of a nation like China to offer economic competition to US companies. And this approach isn’t that far from mainstream thinking in our political class. For example, Darrell M. West, a vice president at the very centrist Brookings Institution, promotes what he calls “the ‘brain gain’ of immigration.” “To stay competitive,” he advises us, “the United States must institute more of an open-door policy to attract unique talents from other nations.”

The US should welcome immigrants, educated or not, simply as fellow human beings, but that’s not what US policymakers are saying. Both Darrell West and the Republican politicians only seem to value immigrants when they can help bolster the US economy. What distinguishes the Republicans is that they couple the “brain gain” policy with anti-immigrant rhetoric and attacks on refugees and family unification, shamelessly claiming that they’re “putting Americans first.” The tax bill is a reminder that the only ones they put first are their billionaire friends and donors.

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