Fear. That’s the main thing Jim Mather says the international student population at the University of South Alabama is feeling right now, given the uncertain state of the American immigration system. As director of Friends of Internationals — a student ministry and community organization — he works directly with some 1,000 students, from more than 90 countries, who have come to Mobile, Alabama to pursue a higher education.
Several of these students are studying engineering, acquiring skills that are in high demand in the local economy. like Airbus, for example, which in 2015 opened a $600 million factory in Mobile, the first aircraft assembly plant the European aerospace company has built in the United States. So the fact that students would like to stay in the United States after graduation and get jobs should mean good things for the local economy, says Mather. Instead, with new rules restricting the ability of U.S. employers to obtain visas for high-skilled, foreign guest workers, Mather says talented international students are feeling increasingly discouraged about pursuing work in America. “As the economies in other countries, like India, are improving, we’re seeing more students who are thinking, Hey, India isn’t looking so bad,” says Mather. “Their parents are encouraging them to come home. The local media in these places is telling them not to come to America in the first place. It’s really other countries, like India, Canada, Australia, that are going to benefit from our poor policy.”
Of course, workforce and economic development aren’t all that the United States stands to lose. American universities could also take a significant financial hit if international enrollment drops. “International students provide a massive assist to every university in this nation,” Mather he says. “They pay double the tuition, so if you eliminate or discourage, say, 1,000 international students, you’re not losing 1,000 international students. You’re losing what 2,000 students would pay in tuition and fees.”
In addition, Mather says American students appreciate the cultural education their foreign peers offer. “In the last few years, we’re finding that students are rejecting the tension they see in politics and are saying, “No, actually, we want to learn about these other cultures,” says Mather. It’s inspired him to establish a monthly cultural night to highlight the food, art, and history of his students’ native countries. Attendance at these events has grown such that Mather has had to relocate some from his home to the university. “We had one that drew 200 people and packed the place out,” he says.
As a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, where he worked in special training in and, for 15 years, as an intensive-care nurse, Mather has dedicated himself spent his life giving back to his country. Today, he believes the best way to strengthen America is by enacting immigration policy that’s truly inclusive. He wants immigrants to have an easier way to settle here to make their own economic and civic contributions. He especially wants foreign students welcomed. Mather became the director of Friends of Internationals at USA because he understands that America’s safety and success depends upon its partnerships with other countries. By way of example, he points to the many world leaders who were educated in the United States. “We’re talking presidents, prime ministers, the ruling elite,” he says. “So if we can build relationships with these people who do return to their country and assume leadership positions, we’re building a healthier world.”
To accomplish this, we need a balanced, bipartisan approach. “There’s a lot of misinformation and propaganda out there,” says Mather. “Like people saying we need extreme vetting — you can’t get much more extreme than we already are without completely blocking immigrants from coming into the country. There’s got to be a middle road there. I’m for coming to the table from both parties and passing immigration reform that both sides can compromise on.”