Universities such as Cornell should take interest in the national immigration reform debate given the major presence of international students on campus, President David Skorton said at a debate Friday.
The event, held at the Cornell Law School Friday, came on the heels of an 844-page Senate immigration bill — “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” — which was unveiled Wednesday. The bill carried sweeping proposals, one of which offers undocumented immigrants a specific path toward receiving citizenship.
Skorton said international students at both Cornell and other universities “contribute a great deal to our campuses.”
“Cornell has 4,100 international students — that’s nearly one-fifth of the student body,” Skorton said.
Skorton also cited the positive effects that international students can have on the American economy as a reason immigration reform should remain a concern among universities.
“International graduates of our programs directly create jobs for Americans themselves. … [This] effect is especially strong for immigrants who earn advanced degrees in STEM disciplines,” Skorton said. “But because of the antiquated immigration laws, many international graduates of American higher education who wish to continue to work and reside in the U.S. have no legal way to stay in the country.”
Skorton said he believes the country “sorely needs” immigration reform to “attract and retain the world’s brightest minds.”
“Immigrants are clustered throughout many occupations in the U.S., [not only] in what have been called the ‘less-skilled’ occupations, but also in the ‘high-skilled, high-tech’ fields,” Skorton said. “Evidence suggests that on both sides of the skills spectrum, immigrant workers perform valuable services and are [beneficial to] the American economy.”
According to Skorton, denying undocumented immigrants the opportunity to advance their knowledge and skills through higher education constricts their opportunities and decreases the supply of talent for the U.S.
Skorton addressed how he would like to alleviate the burden that undocumented students at Cornell may face.
“[We are] working harder, specifically on this campus, to arrange philanthropy fundraising for additional financial aid for undocumented students here at Cornell,” Skorton said.
Skorton has also addressed the issue nationally — he, along with the presidents of Arizona State University and Miami Dade College, recently signed an open letter that called on Congress to implement visa reform for students earning advanced degrees in STEM fields.
Prof. Hiroshi Motomura, law, University of California, Los Angeles, said he believes that legalization is important for both “fairness” as well as “practical” reasons.
“[We need to] … harness the human capital of people who have really contributed to society,” Motomura said. “However, there are a couple of things that are more sobering about legalization. The path to citizenship is important because it says a lot about the time dimension and how we think about people. … One has to think about balancing the value of the path to citizenship [with] just being able to live.”
According to Prof. Michael Jones-Correa, government, there are two ways of thinking about the current immigration debate: how it shapes Cornell, and how the University can contribute to the debate.
“[People are largely] coming here for graduate degrees,” Jones-Correa said. “They include people who have been here for much of their lives and are coming to Cornell even if they are undocumented.”
Jones-Correa said that although bringing together highly skilled workers is a laudable goal for Cornell and other universities around the country, all immigrants have potential.
He also said he is concerned with the current Senate bill and much of the debate on immigration because it creates a dichotomy between legality and illegality.“We treat the distinction between legality and illegality as if it were natural,” Jones-Correa said. “However, much of this debate stems as an unintended consequence of the 1965 Immigration Act — there was a lot of informal migration going on between the U.S.-Mexico border, and we wanted to have some [sense] of control on the border so we made these distinctions.”
Jones-Correa urged the population as a whole to avoid polarizing legal statuses.
“[We need to] think about the status that people on the path toward citizenship have as a continuous one, rather than as a break between legal and illegal,” Jones-Correa said.