Sarit Dhar

Sarit Dhar is associate professor of physics and the Thomas and Jean Walter Chair at Auburn University.

I came to the United States from India in 2000, and like numerous other immigrants in Alabama, I take great pride in training the workforce and contributing to America’s economy.

But the legal path I followed to citizenship has become much more challenging, and that’s hurting Alabama: Fewer international students are applying to our graduate science, technology, engineering and math programs.

A threatened resource

As chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, is in a position to counter this worrisome trend.

Immigrants have played an important role in Alabama’s economy. More than 9,000 immigrant business owners in our state generated roughly $180 million in business income, according to a 2015 report by the American Immigration Council.

Not only are they generating thousands of jobs for Alabama citizens, immigrant-owned businesses are also improving our health and safety. One outstanding example: XpertDox, a business that matches patients with rare and serious diseases with expert doctors who treat those diseases.

That source of economic benefit for Alabama is now in jeopardy.

I know firsthand the challenges of obtaining a green card to stay in the U.S. I arrived on an F-1 visa, allowing me to obtain my Ph.D. in materials science from Vanderbilt University.

I graduated in 2005, but my career options were significantly limited because I lacked a green card to obtain employment at a national laboratory or in the private sector where my specialized skill set could be applied to the benefit of United States.

If my F-1 visa had been “dual intent” – allowing me to both study and apply for residency in the United States – I would have been able to start my green card application sooner.

Help students stay

Under the current law, most international students come to the U.S. via “single intent” visas, meaning they can only come here to study and must prove they will return to their home countries after graduation.

A minor change – which has had bipartisan support – is to make the international student visa “dual intent.

That provision would allow international students to simultaneously study and apply to become American citizens.

The path I followed has become significantly more challenging and is hurting America’s ability to attract exceptional international students. Instead, they are studying elsewhere and building businesses in countries that compete with the U.S.

According to a 2018 report by the National Science Foundation, the number of international students applying to graduate science programs in the U.S. is falling at an alarming rate. At a major university in Alabama, for example, international applications for its graduate physics program dropped 8.1 percent, from 2017 to 2018.

The decline in applications could indicate a slowdown in our economy in the short term. International students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2017-18 academic year, according to an analysis.

The long-term loss is unclear, but of the 87 U.S. startup companies valued at least at $1 billion in 2016, more than half were founded by immigrants, with 21 companies’ founders first coming to the U.S. as international students, according to a report by the National Foundation for American Policy.

Shelby could help

I sincerely urge Sen. Shelby to help reverse this perilous economic trend. If Alabama wants to attract highly skilled scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to grow our economy, it needs to support dual intent visas.

They will make it easier for us to keep the talent base that we generate at our universities in America and help highly qualified individuals to contribute to the economic growth of Alabama and America.

Sarit Dhar is associate professor of physics and the Thomas and Jean Walter Chair at Auburn University.

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