As a child, Leslie Caughell watched her father, who was born in Canada, navigate the “anxiety-inducing” U.S. immigration system. It’s something the family can laugh about now. But far more anxiety inducing today, says Caughell, a political science professor at Virginia Wesleyan University, is the prospect of U.S. universities losing international students — students vital to the the academic institutions themselves and to their local economies.
“Broadly speaking, people in higher education are terrified about overly restrictive immigration policies targeted in ways that will make it difficult for international students to study here,” says Caughell. Universities are already seeing a dramatic drop in interest, something that could financially impact American students, whose education is, in part, subsidized by international-student tuition.
here are realities in this country that we’re just going to have to figure out a way to deal with.
In a 2017 survey conducted by a coalition of U.S. higher education associations, 39 percent of U.S. colleges and universities reported a decline in international applications, with the sharpest drop reported from the Middle East. International students cited a perceived rise in visa denials, a perception that the United States had become less welcoming to outsiders, and concerns that travel and employment opportunities would be further restricted.
Caughell points out that international students enrich the entire educational environment. “For American students who don’t travel, it points out to them that there are different ways of thinking to consider,” she says. “And when they realize that, you can start to see them value democracy more.” In addition, these students — there were 891,000 studying in the United States in 2014 — contribute to local economies “in a big way,” she says, through tuition payments and spending on housing, books, and other day-to-day expenses. In 2015 alone, that spending added up to $32.8 billion in economic revenue nationwide and supported more than 334,000 jobs.
Caughell urges Americans to recognize what immigrants actually contribute to the economy. In Virginia’s Second Congressional District, where she lives, immigrants pay $498 million in annual taxes, and through work pay into federal Social Security and Medicare funds. “My father has been here for 30 years and pays into Social Security even though he’s not eligible to receive those benefits,” she says. “That’s a huge benefit. Especially because in America our birth rate is so low.”
Caughell would like to see immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrations who have been working and contributing to the economy. And she especially wants protection for the young adults protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — and their parents. “There are realities in this country that we’re just going to have to figure out a way to deal with,” she says. “We have to talk about Dreamers and find some sort of middle ground to figure out how to justly deal with people who have been here and who’ve been contributing members of our society but didn’t come here legally.”
“We’ve got to do a better job on a humanitarian level of recognizing that some of the people who are coming here have no other choice,” she says. “When you’re coming from areas of the world that are very dangerous, being stuck for 10 years trying to navigate the system is just unworkable. It puts their lives at risk.”