CATO’s Alex Nowrasteh asks,
From an economic perspective, a decent question. But aside from thinking about more accepting labor immigration policies in the framework of liberal economics, it’s worth asking the question from the perspective of politics, and what this kind of policy might do for US universities.
The British perspective may help. In Britain, there are basically two major constituencies that have a lot of sway in immigration policies, which are business groups and universities. The UK higher ed sector is heavily dependent budget-wise on foreign students, and it views itself as in global competition for those students. So naturally it has been very supportive of policies that provide for broad, automatic labor market access for UK graduates, since it increases the universities’ market appeal. (What this means practically is that people can switch automatically from a student visa to an unsponsored work visa.) Restricting these routes has led to strong protests from universities, which policymakers would rather avoid if they can help it. (Considering the current UK government’s immigration targets, though, they can’t.) In political terms, any future advantages that foreign UK graduates are likely to gain in the immigration system will be there largely as a result of the UK universities’ lobbying, in order to provide a competitive benefit to UK universities.
The biggest difference in the US is that universities are not exactly on the front lines of these arguments in the same way. Notably, there is a large and important ethnic lobby impacting the immigration debate in the US in a way that does not exist in the UK. Still, on the margins of the US debate, major research universities and tech companies are players in advocating for a larger reform that can accommodate the interests of US research. The most proximate reason for a policy favoring STEM grads of US universities is the desire to address the problem of the US “throwing away” people it educates — in other words, preventing brain drain (or, perhaps more accurately, eliminating regulatory obstacles to brain retention). But it’s also interesting to think about whether it helps to keep the education sector on board, advocating for immigration reform, more than a different policy might. Accepting STEM grads from around the world might be most beneficial from the perspective of liberal economics, but favoring US grads for work permits will probably provide US universities extra appeal to foreign students, since a US degree would come with labor market access to a huge economy that foreign students might not otherwise have.