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By Tawanda W. Johnson
Pushing back against the Trump Administration’s plans to restrict certain visa categories that are crucial to science and economic competitiveness, the APS Office of Government Affairs (APS OGA) released a new report titled “How International Students and Researchers Benefit the United States: Their Experiences, Their Stories.”
The report highlights the importance of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) and J-1 visa programs—both viewed as vulnerable under the Trump Administration—through stories about talented international students and scholars who chose to study and work in the United States.
The OPT program enables highly skilled international students who completed their studies in the United States to gain work experience for a period of time and is used as a recruiting tool by high-tech companies. Businesses such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Intel are among numerous tech firms that annually employ thousands of recently graduated international scientists and engineers under the OPT program. J-1 visa holders are typically researchers, students, and professors who participate in work- or study-related programs in the United States.
Despite their benefit to the United States, the future of these programs is uncertain following the release of a series of executive actions targeting key visa programs. For example, in June, the White House issued a proclamation that included suspending entry to the United States for international workers in certain J-1 categories.
Although STEM categories for the J-1 visa were spared any negative impact—due in part to the overwhelming response of APS members in a grassroots campaign—the opposite was true for the H-1B program, which enables colleges and businesses to hire highly skilled international workers. The proclamation suspends entry to the United States of anyone who seeks to enter using an H-1B visa, but does not currently have a valid visa.
Further, a recent White House action will create a disincentive to the current and future employment of international workers on H-1B visas. Companies, associations and universities are fighting the H-1B rules with lawsuits. Meanwhile, the science community remains concerned that OPT and STEM categories for J-1 could be curtailed.
The APS OGA report states how important international students and scholars are to the US scientific enterprise.
“The benefit these international students and researchers provide to the United States is clear and measurable. As of 2018, immigrants had founded more than half (50 of 91) of the privately-held billion-dollar startup companies in the United States, and 21 of these 91 companies had a founder who first came to the United States as an international student,” the document notes.
The highlight of the report, as previously noted, is the more than 100 compelling stories from APS members about the positive impact OPT and J-1 visa programs have had on their or peers’ careers. The following are general themes and highlights from those stories:
OPT and J-1 visas can attract the world’s top talent
“In 1973, Michael Kosterlitz came to the United States from the United Kingdom for a postdoctoral position at Cornell University on a J-1 visa. This experience started a long career in the United States, as he became a physics professor at Brown University and a US citizen. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2016 and one year later was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences. As he puts it, ‘This would not have happened without my getting a J-1 visa in 1973, so I owe my success to the J-1 visa and (the) USA owes the J-1 visa program for yet another Nobel Prize to an American citizen.’”
OPT and J-1 visas produce strong and positive outcomes for the United States
“Forty-three years ago, James Myra came to the United States from Canada to pursue a PhD in plasma and fusion physics. After completing his doctorate, Myra was able to transition to a career in the United States through OPT and eventually became a US citizen. ‘It has been a career in which I could apply my research skills to the benefit of the American people and indeed the world.” His contributions to US economic and scientific competitiveness include: starting a business in Colorado; hiring US citizens; and publishing research publications that have been cited by other scientists around the world an astonishing 6,800+ times.”
OPT and J-1 visas generate critical contributions far beyond academia
“Jennifer Ross is chair of the Physics Department at Syracuse University, and her high-impact work focuses on the physics of cells. She highlighted the contributions that foreign-born scholars have made in her lab, especially one of her former postdoctoral researchers who came to the United States on a J-1 visa from Mexico: ‘He taught everyone in the lab about molecular biology, protein purification (and) microscopy. He wrote our first paper that came exclusively from my lab. I probably wouldn’t have tenure without his work.’ This same postdoctoral fellow, after leaving her lab, contributed to the private sector: ‘He worked on a start-up company focused on using local RNA delivery to boost wound healing. It has major ramifications for basic science and applications for medical research. In particular, it should be of interest to the military—to help our wounded soldiers to heal faster without scar tissue.’”
Diverse perspectives greatly benefit the US R&D communities
“Laurel Anderson is currently a physics PhD student at Harvard University advancing our understanding of nanomaterials. ‘Although I am a US citizen, I have benefited immensely from the knowledge, expertise and mentorship of J-1 visa recipients. My research lab has postdoctoral researchers from Israel, Finland, Turkey, Brazil, South Korea and other countries. They bring a wealth of specialized skills and scientific insight about our field to help our lab perform cutting-edge experiments. There are very few people in the world with these skills, and losing these postdocs due to visa difficulties would set our research back years... Their advice and support have been truly invaluable to me. They bring so much to our country beyond just their expertise.’”
In concluding, the report lays out several themes:
Francis Slakey, Chief External Affairs Officer for APS, said the Society looks forward to using the report as part of a roadmap toward keeping the “United States as the destination of choice for the world’s best and brightest.”
He added, “These stories have been shared with staffers at the US State Department, and the goal is to have them use the information to preserve OPT and the J-1 visa program.”
The author is Senior Press Secretary in the Office of External Affairs.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine