When Colleen Beckemeyer was growing up in St. Louis, family Thanksgivings had an international flair. Her father was a professor of finance at St. Louis University and made a point of inviting students from places like Spain, Thailand, and Hong Kong to join them for dinner. “They were always so gracious and would bring little gifts and stay in touch with my parents years later,” says Beckemeyer, a financial advisor with Ameriprise and an instructor of finance at St. Louis University. “We always had the philosophy: There’s room for one more at the table.” That ethic of opening your home, she believes, should “extend to the nation.”
Beckemeyer’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from Ireland in the 1920s, settled in West Virginia, and became a union president. The family always spoke of what a hard worker he was. And he loved America so much that he specifically chose to celebrate his birthday on the Fourth of July. The family only learned after his death that his real birthday was in February. As a teacher, and a member of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis board, Beckemeyer has seen this same determination and pride in her foreign students.
“There is so much that immigrants and economically disadvantaged people have to overcome just to get to the doorway of a college” she says. “That’s what I’m so impressed with, the courage and the resilience.”
To be deporting people who grew up here through no fault of their own? That’s inhumane.
She also has found that their presence in the classroom dramatically enriches the conversation, and challenges her to be a better instructor. She sees international students adding sorely needed value to the country outside the university, as well. “Particularly in the sciences, the American students just aren’t achieving the level of education to the extent that some of the foreign students are,” she says. In fact, more than a quarter of master’s degrees and more than a third of PhD degrees issued by U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are earned by international students. Meanwhile, the number students pursuing graduate STEM degrees who are either citizens or permanent residents fell — by 6.3 percent between 2010 and 2013.
Given that the United States is projected to face a shortage of 1 million workers in STEM fields by 2022 — a deficit that threatens America’s ability to compete in the international economy — foreign-born students like those whom Beckemeyer teaches represent an increasingly vital component of the American economy. In Missouri’s Second Congressional District, where she lives, 27.4 percent of foreign-born residents have a graduate degree, compared with just 18 percent of the U.S.-born population.
Beckemeyer believes that immigration reform is necessary to retain that young talent, however daunting a task it may be. Not only is there a moral imperative to address the issue, she says, but doing so is in the best interests of the country and its citizens. For example, Beckemeyer points out that shutting down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which allows undocumented immigrants who came here as young children to study and work, isn’t just antithetical to American values, but has real-world financial consequences for Americans. Passing a DREAM Act would add an estimated $329 billion to the economy and create 1.4 million new jobs within 20 years.
“To be deporting people who grew up here through no fault of their own? That’s inhumane,” Beckemeyer says.