How Immigration Reform Can Advance Science

Professor Al Teich provides visa policy recommendations to make the U.S. more globally competitive.
Al Teich
Professor Al Teich is an expert in science and immigration policy.
March 12, 2014

By Julyssa Lopez

The process of brain circulation, or high-skilled immigration, aims to bring the best and brightest minds to U.S. soil for information exchanges that result in scientific advancements and vitality nationwide.

However, foreign-born students and scientists often face difficulty when it comes to visiting or immigrating to the U.S. During his 32-year career at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Elliott School of International Affairs Professor Al Teich noticed the complexities of visa policies in the wake of 9/11. With several colleagues, he catalyzed a group and set to work figuring out how to streamline the processes and promote scientific collaboration in the country.

Dr. Teich has continued research on the topic through a grant from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, and he recently presented his findings at meetings organized by AAAS and the American Physical Society. George Washington Today spoke to the expert about his policy recommendations and how the U.S. can better utilize brain circulation to remain a leader in science and technology fields.

Q: Why is brain circulation so critical to American society today?
A: Being at the forefront of science and technology is vital to our national security and economic competitiveness. It is no longer unquestionably the case that the U.S. is the leader in these fields—we have reduced federal investment in research and development, while countries like China and Korea have invested tremendous amounts to increase their capabilities. They are collaborators in a sense, but they are also serious competitors.

We have to draw on the talent that exists in the rest of the world. If we don’t collaborate with the brightest scientists from other countries, we’re going to fall behind and that will have great consequences for our standing in the world.

Q: How has the advent of technology affected the way we collaborate internationally?
A: Scientists collaborate more frequently with international partners than they did 25 to 30 years ago. It’s easier to do now through recent forms of communication—we have Skype, email and you can even control instrumentation and computers remotely in other parts of the world. But these things don’t substitute for direct contact. People still have to get together in the same room and be able to talk. The need to meet in person requires that we have visas and policies that make things easier, not more difficult.

Q: You first began looking at this issue more than 10 years ago following 9/11. Have immigration or visa policies changed since then?
A: I started out here at GW asking questions related to security concerns similar to those of the early 2000s. But the more I got into the subject, the more I began to recognize there were more fundamental issues related to immigration and how obsolete some of our policies have become.

214 (b) is a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and it is the most common reason that students get turned down for a visa. It automatically assumes that anyone who is applying for a visa wants to immigrate here permanently. In order to be approved, they have to demonstrate that this is not their intention. We are giving foreign students access to an education—often subsidized with government funds, especially at the graduate level—and then we tell them they have to go home. President Barack Obama mentioned in his first inaugural address that it doesn’t make sense to throw out talented people who could make important contributions to the U.S. economy and technology.

Q: Can you share some of the recommendations you feel would make improvements?
A: One of the principal recommendations of our study is that students should be allowed “dual intent,” which means that international students are allowed to be undecided about whether they want to stay in the U.S. or return home after they graduate. When I was a freshman in college, I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but I changed my mind by the time I finished my four years of school. To force people to make such a significant choice when they are applying for a visa is not very appropriate. The provision was written in 1952 when there were 74,000 foreign students in higher education institutes in the U.S. Now we have more than 800,000 students who are an important part of the educational system and constitute a significant fraction of the student body at many universities.

Q: Are you hopeful Congress will take action on some of these issues?
A: In an ideal world, I would like to see the issues of brain circulation and high-skilled immigration separated from the larger and more difficult issues of illegal immigration. In the real world, I doubt that’s going to happen. There are so many other things on the national agenda.

Some things can be implemented through executive order—President Obama has ordered that we extend the visa policy processing capabilities in critical consulates like China and Brazil. However, adjusting provisions like 214 (b) must be done legislatively, and those changes will be particularly difficult.