Immigrant STEM Students the ‘Lifeblood of American Research,’ Says University President

Harris Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina (USC), says immigration reform is key to the future of the United States. The son of Greek-Cypriot immigrants — those hailing from the island of Cyprus —Pastides grew up in New York State and learned about citizenship from his immigrant parents,, who became citizens so they could vote and participate fully in American life. Pastides helped them study for their citizenship tests. The experience “made me a better American citizen,” he says. “I understood that citizenship was a responsibility rather than something to be taken for granted.”

Pastides’ parents also stressed the importance of education. He earned a master’s in public health and a PhD in epidemiology from Yale University, and he has spent his adult life working in academia. In 2008, he became president of USC, a public university with an enrollment of 34,000 students — nearly 2,000 of whom are from overseas. Pastides says that 110 nations are currently represented by the students and faculty. Statewide in South Carolina, international students make up 2 percent of college and university enrollees.

Companies will go abroad if they can’t find skilled workers here, and that cannot be good for our future.

It may sound like a small number, but it is significant because many of these students are studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines. The United States is currently facing a serious shortage of STEM workers, with the number of unfilled vacancies of STEM jobs expected to rise to 1 million within 5 years, according to New American Economy. In South Carolina alone, there are 10 to 14 STEM jobs advertised for every individual STEM worker. USC doctoral students in these fields represent “the lifeblood of American research and development,” Pastides says.

To stay and work in the United States, many of the students rely on the H-1B visa for high-skilled workers. The number of visas issued each year, however, are capped well below what companies need and are currently threatened with further cuts. This means many highly qualified students will be forced to leave the United States after graduation, taking their specialized skills with them. Pastides says that international enrollment for the coming academic year at USC has also declined, with many students choosing instead to study in Canada or Australia. He warns that this brain drain will have economic consequences for the United States. “Companies will go abroad if they can’t find skilled workers here,” he says, “and that cannot be good for our future.”

Pastides says that immigration reform is necessary to ensure America’s economic well-being. While national security is important, he believes a smart immigration policy can protect both the country’s safety and its economy. “We need to assess the nation’s goals with regards to security, fueling our national economic wellbeing, and our general cultural wellbeing,” he says. “Then we should develop a road map based on those needs.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…