Florida college and university presidents are calling on Congress to pass immigration reform this year, saying it would be better for the state's economy if foreign students could stay after graduation, instead of being forced to take their diplomas and leave.
The "brain drain" of U.S.-educated foreign students is worrying economic and education leaders who say the students soon become competitors.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, University of Miami President Donna Shalala said a high percentage of non-citizens earn degrees in the high-paying STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and then depart.
"Half of all of Ph.D. and masters students in the STEM fields in our research universities are students who come from other countries," Shalala said. "Many of them would like to stay, and we need immigration reform to give them that opportunity and to capture the talent that we're educating."
In a Sept. 16 letter to Florida's Congressional delegation, Shalala and the other presidents wrote that in 2009, 53 percent of students earning masters or doctoral degrees in STEM fields from Florida’s research-intensive universities were non-citizens. More than 60 percent of students earning recent doctorates in engineering were non-citizens.
"As soon as we hand them their diploma, we also basically are handing them an airline ticket and saying, 'Thanks very much for coming here – go home,'" said Ed Moore, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.
What's worse, he said, is that those students usually end up working for Florida's competitors in the global economy.
"Say they’re from China. They may end up being hired by a company in Brazil or a company in Italy or a company in England," Moore said. "They go there and work to compete against American industry on the global market. It makes absolutely no sense."
The Democratic-led U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June. It includes a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, a temporary worker program and more visas for skilled non-citizens. But the measure is stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Conservative opposition is fierce. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has played a leading role in the debate, was booed at the Americans for Prosperity conference in Orlando last month, taking the stage to shouts of "No amnesty!" – a reference to allowing illegal immigrants to become U.S citizens.
But Anthony Catanese, president of the Florida Institute of Technology, said he doesn't see the issue as a political one.
"Getting these young people to the highest level of American technological education and then making them return – I think we should see that as a non-controversial reason for getting the STEM graduates, especially at the graduate level, to have an opportunity to work for the United States and put them on a path toward citizenship," Catanese said.
In their letter to Florida's U.S. House members, the presidents noted that a recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Enterprise Institute found that for every 100 foreign-born graduates of a U.S. graduate program who stay in the country, working in a STEM field, 262 jobs are created for American workers.
"Immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business, and immigrant-owned businesses in Florida generate about $13.3 billion in income for the state each year," they wrote. "But in Florida our share of foreign-born STEM advanced degree holders working in STEM fields decreased by 17 percent between 2000 and 2010."
Moore said that many House members have said they have too many other issues on their plates to deal with immigration reform.
"That's nonsense," he said. "I know they're busy in Syria and all these other issues, but immigration should stay on the front burner of Congressional action this year."