Maryam Stevenson has dedicated her professional career to studying how high-skilled immigrants help the American economy. As an immigration attorney in Memphis in the mid-aughts, she specialized in skilled worker visas for the healthcare industry. Today, as an assistant professor of political science at Troy University in Troy, Alabama, she is writing a book about immigration and Congress. One of the arguments she makes: Providing a path for more enterprising and highly skilled immigrants to come to America will create a more innovative and prosperous economy.
“I am a proponent of immigration for highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs,” says Stevenson. “That is where I focus my own research, and where other research shows are the two areas foreign nationals heavily impact and make this country better.”
Many of us […] couldn’t do what we do without immigrants.
Unfortunately, the United States has failed to significantly reform its immigration system since 1986, so it’s not as easy for qualified foreigners to bring their talents here. Stevenson points to worker shortages in key industries like agriculture and healthcare and says Congress should take a lesson from the Canadian system, which doles out visas according to what skills the economy requires.
“Immigration is often framed to Americans in terms of the negative: border security issues, undocumented immigrants, terrorism, things that are enveloped in fear,” says Stevenson. “But in reality, there are so many other aspects of immigration that are tremendously helpful to this country that aren’t as widely known.”
She points to the Conrad 30, a program that allows foreign doctors to remain in the United States following their U.S. residency program in exchange for practicing medicine in an underserved area for three years. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, nearly 20 percent of physicians practicing in the United States are foreign-born, and they serve a critical role in rural and underserved areas that do not attract enough U.S.-born doctors. “Oftentimes people in small towns, especially in Alabama, don’t have access to specialists and have to travel fairly long distances to major cities to get the care they need,” explains Stevenson. “This program kind of does away with all that because it places immigrant doctors right there in those rural communities.”
The goal, she says, is to let people who can help strengthen and provide for our country do so, because the benefits are vast. Not only do immigrants in Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, where Stevenson works, play key roles in the construction, accommodation, food, and manufacturing industries. They are also 70 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs than native-born residents, and their households paid more than $105 million in taxes and held more than $336 million in spending power in 2014.
Stevenson sums it up: “Many of us – especially in my field of academia where we have a tremendous number of foreign PhDs who perform research and teach in institutions and universities across the country – couldn’t do what we do without immigrants.”