I take my posting title here from the book titles How the Irish Became White and How the Jews Became White, chronicling the gradual societal acceptance of ethnic minorities in the U.S. I’d also cite the excellent memoir by my University of California, Davis colleague, King Hall Law School Dean Kevin Johnson, How Did You Get to Be Mexican?, telling us of his transformation from Anglo wannabe to a super Latino and a strident booster of expansive immigration policies. (Kevin’s mother was Mexican.) These books are not completely analogous to my post this evening, but they have the common theme of change in societal perceptions of certain groups, and as well as self-perceptions. So far, so good, but it gets scary when positive perceptions are subtly created, by special interests who often have hidden agendas.
This is what Noam Chomsky famously called manufactured consent, in which powerful special interests would use subliminal PR techniques to build popular support for policies that would benefit those interests. This may be motivated by money or power, or in the case of some individuals, simply a craving for the limelight, but typically the motivation is not apparent to the populace who are being manipulated.
As far as I know, the American people have had a positive perception of foreign students over the years, not just passively but even engaging in activities such as serving as host families and so on. But somewhere along the line the lobbying groups’ PR experts decided that the word foreign was a negative, connoting, say, “alien” and worse, “not one of us.” Thus the term foreign students was dropped, for example, in the media, in university administrator statements,and in the pitches made by political lobbyists and their allies. The foreign students became international students.
This subtle linguistic movement has been in progress for some time now. I remember being interviewed on CNN in the late 1990s, and the producer saying to me, “Oh, oh, you used the word ‘foreign.’ This is against CNN policy. But it’s our fault; we should have warned you.” If you want a bit of amusement, from now on, watch the statements by the lobbyists and their allies regarding the H-1B work visa; you’ll see that they almost always use the term foreign-born in lieu of foreign, and go to great lengths to avoid the forbidden word.
Look for instance at the paper by two academics, sponsored by an industry lobbying group, titled Talent, Immigration and U.S. Competitiveness. The term foreign-born is used 27 times, often in such close proximity that it reads quite awkwardly. All this effort, just to avoid using the word foreign at all costs! And it’s also inaccurate; lots of my American students are foreign-born but became U.S. citizens or permanent residents long before entering college. To lump these students in with the foreign students is very misleading (as is much else in that lobbyist-funded study cited above).
Even the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, one of the most active lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, decided it was better to avoid the F-word, and formally changed its name to their acronym, NAFSA.
Mind you, I’ve always strongly supported our nation’s foreign student program, and I still do. But as I said in my last post, I don’t like being lied to. We’re told, for instance, that the foreign tech students are typically brilliant, innovative and a boon to the U.S. economy if they stay. But on the contrary, they are somewhat below the Americans in quality. My study found that the foreign students in computer science who later joined the U.S. workforce file fewer patents per capita than do Americans of the same background; this jibed with a more general study by Professor Jennifer Hunt of Rutgers (see qualifier in my study). I also found that the former foreign students were less likely than comparable Americans to be employed in R&D positions, and that they tended to get their degrees at somewhat less-selective institutions, similar to the findings of an NBER study. Some foreign students are indeed of outstanding talent, having deep insights or great, creative ideas, people who greatly benefit the U.S. if they stay; but they are the small minority.
Even the usual claim that the foreign student program exposes Americans to people of other cultures is, sadly, way overblown. Once the students of a given nationality reach critical mass on a campus, the amount of mixing with other groups tends to decline drastically.
So, why all this push to place foreign students in a positive light? Just what are the vested interests here? I explained in a previous post that employers love to hire foreign students because of their immobility. Indeed, even some faculty like the “loyal” nature of the foreign students; Stephen Seideman, dean of the school’s college of computing science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, gushed in a 2005 interview that foreign students “will do everything they can to stay here.”
And many small private colleges with funding problems view foreign students as cash cows, people who will pay full freight. These days public institutions view things the same way, especially since they charge foreign students higher tuition. The obsession to get their hands on this money reached such a fever pitch at some California State University campuses that one of them, CSU East Bay, even closed Master’s degree admission at one point to domestic students, allowing only foreign students to enroll. Indeed, even before CSUEB’s dramatic move, 90% of the graduate students in computer science were foreign. Professor Maria Nieto of CSUEB also stated that the quality of the foreign students was low.
I’ve written many times about the internal National Science Foundation report that advocated expanding the foreign student program in order to hold down PhD salaries in STEM. (The NSF is one of the two main federal science agencies.)
I’m bringing all this up now partly in response to a recent article by the flamboyant Vivek Wadhwa, a former tech CEO turned tech pundit. Vivek and I have enjoyed friendly banter over the years, both in public and in private e-mail (in one case, a bit more than banter), and agree on a lot more than we disagree on, such as agreeing on the widespread (but legal) abuse of the H-1B program for cheap labor.
Nevertheless, Vivek has become an outspoken advocate of an expansive tech immigration policy, the main theme of this new piece. After listing various recent technological advances, he states (without support for the claim) that “Foreign-born engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs are helping lead the charge in all of these areas.” (Did you catch that magic phrase?)
Vivek, echoing the talking points of the lobbyists, claims that a shortage of visas (both H-1B and green cards) is causing “immigration limbo” for many recent foreign graduates of U.S. schools, and is causing many to return home–presumably a great loss to the U.S. economy, especially since these returnees will contribute to the economies back home. As he puts it, “The loser is the United States, because it is limiting its economic growth and creating its own competition.” He supports legislative proposals aimed at keeping them in the U.S.
Though this may sound plausible on the surface, it flies in the face of the facts. The data show that recent stay rates are still quite high, and that jibes with my personal experience. I teach graduate students in computer science, electrical engineering and statistics, and I’ve never known a single case in which the foreign student wanted to immigrate to the U.S. but could not do so. And the much-ballyhooed long waits for green cards are for the EB-3 category, which is for the “ordinary” workers, in contrast to EB-1 and EB-2, the green card categories for the extraordinary talents, presumably the ones we want to keep.
And more important, keeping them in the U.S. doesn’t keep them from aiding the economies of their home countries. Even the strongly pro-H-1B Berkeley professor AnnaLee Saxenian found that more than 80% of the Indian and Chinese engineers in Silicon Valley share technological information with firms in their home countries, with over half investing in tech back home. (Please note: This is NOT meant to imply industrial espionage.) So, to use Vivek’s phrasing, we are “creating our own competition” anyway.
There are lots of good reasons to have a thriving foreign student program. We “educate the world,” especially the Third World countries that need technical help; we expose foreigners to American culture–sometimes shocking them, but typically earning their respect–and there is at least some cultural transfer in the other direction. And yes, in some cases it does bring “the best and the brightest” to the U.S. But we should support the student visa program for those laudable reasons, not to satisfy hidden agendas. We should not support the legislative goals of the special interests that are harmful to the national well-being. And please, no more CSU East Bay fiascos, OK?