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November 24, 2004

Who Loses When U.S. Closes its Doors to International Students and Workers?

Current U.S. immigration policies threaten America’s standing in the world by stifling the needed infusion of international talent in academia, research and commerce, two local educational leaders warned.

Alan Lesgold, dean of Pitt’s School of Education, and Stewart Sutin, president of the Community College of Allegheny County and former senior vice president and international department head for Mellon Financial Corp., addressed “America’s Reverse Brain Drain,” offering gloomy prognostications for the American economy, labor force and higher education systems.

“Unfortunately, the prevailing public view today is that we need to lock our doors,” said Lesgold at the Nov. 17 brain drain forum. “The level of misinformation and distrust is so great that altruistic arguments won’t work [to countermand that view]. No one seems to care that it is simply the right thing to make it easy for students to study here and for intellectual leaders to work here.”

A 2.4 percent decline in 2003-2004 in the number of international students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education – the first significant decline since 1971-1972 – is one tell-tale sign of a weakening United States. Other signs include expanded research and commerce opportunities in a growing number of countries worldwide, extensions of global connectedness that U.S. policies are thwarting, and perceptions abroad that the United States is inhospitable to internationals, including the brightest students, leading scholars and technology experts.

“In the academic world, the situation is urgent,” Lesgold maintained. “Once the U.S. was the sole source of advanced study and knowledge. If you wanted a great education in technical areas you had to come here. Today, in the information age, this is changing very quickly.”

Now, competition from a growing number of first-rate institutions globally is increasing options. Moreover, increased knowledge-sharing across traditional borders also diminishes the U.S. role as the only game around.

“A cognitive science doctoral student today can study anywhere in Germany with an Internet connection to any adviser at any other university in the country, and this will soon expand to the entire European community, I’m sure, and then to the rest of the world,” Lesgold said.

But while the rest of scholarly world is becoming ever more interconnected, “We’ve slammed the doors on students who want to come here, and we’re not making it to easier for students to learn from us over the Internet either because of restrictions on software that the federal government enforces,” he said.

U.S. policies also inhibit scientific presenters from sharing knowledge within the U.S. borders, he pointed out.

After 9/11, the U.S. Department of State sent a cable alerting American consular officers around the globe that any official granting a visa to a proven terrorist will be prosecuted for negligence, Lesgold said.

“Look at the fundamental mindset we’ve created: If you have the slightest doubt about anybody, use any excuse possible to prevent an international from obtaining a visa. The result [of that mindset] in fact is that people will choose, are choosing, other countries. The economy of Asia is booming and we are starting to see an intellectual gold rush to that region,” he said.

“A number of high-tech companies are starting to complain to the government that they can’t get enough skilled workers now that our doors are blocked,” Lesgold said. While well-connected companies may have restrictions loosened, he said, “a true free market economy requires that economic forces, not government and lobbying, determine who comes here to work. That is not the case at present.”

Nor is America’s brain drain a short-term problem, pending victory in the war on terrorism, Lesgold said. “Perhaps it is worth temporarily falling a bit behind to be absolutely sure we don’t let in any bad guys,” Lesgold said. “That’s a very weak argument. We still have a porous border. People can get in, and surely those willing to die for their beliefs are also willing to risk going to jail if caught.

Hassling the best students around the world, those who are working on their studies rather than being destructive, will not reduce the dangers we face. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by pretending that stopping technical scholars [from entering U.S. borders] will prevent terrorist attacks.”

U.S. restrictions are sure to come back to haunt Americans, Lesgold said. “Why should anyone believe that we in the U.S. will continue to enjoy free entry with minimal hassle everywhere while we dump on those countries’ citizens who want to come here? Reciprocity is on the ways, folks, and we’re teaching a kind of inversion of the Golden Rule, teaching lessons to our neighbors today on how we should be treated tomorrow. We have locked the door and it locks us in at least as well as it locks others out.”


CCAC President Sutin said that the lack of trust in immigrants is embedded deeply in the history in the United States, often with serious negative ramifications such as the internment of Japanese-American citizens and the treatment of German-Americans in the 1940s, and the “Red scare” of the McCarthy era in the 1950s.

“After 9/11, it was a miracle that the reaction wasn’t worse toward the domestic Islamic population,” he said.

“However, we’ve developed a bureaucratic thinking – mindless stuff under the rubric of national security. Instead of offering visas for those who deserve them, we’re saying: ‘We don’t know who the enemy is, so we’re keeping everybody out.'”

This head-in-the-sand stance has serious consequences for the U.S. economy both home and abroad, Sutin said.

Immigrants have traditionally supplemented the American-born labor force throughout American history, Sutin noted. Western Pennsylvania is a classic case of employing waves of immigrant laborers who became the human backbone of the local and regional economy, he said.

But with the baby boomer generation facing retirement age, immigration restrictions will kill the flow of replacement laborers. “We’re sitting on a demographic time-bomb,” Sutin said.

Moreover, the American attitude of “going it alone” is doomed to failure in the global economy. “We’re beating our chest and saying we don’t need foreign partners, but 40 percent of our economy already is tied up in international markets,” Sutin said. While the global economy is expanding and strengthening, the United States is hindering its role with isolationist immigration policies, he said.

How is the world interconnected? “We are girded to the international economy. There are global environmental issues.

There are global health issues: AIDS, TB, and influenza do not honor borders,” Sutin said. “Yet in education we have this schizophrenic behavior: Foreign language instruction here is weak, so is instruction for social studies, history, geography. We’re becoming mono-cultured.

“Where do we go from here? The current polices are harmful, but if we sit back and wait for change, we become part of the problem,” Sutin continued. “If we have to wait for policy-makers, either in the federal government or the state level, it won’t work. The educational community has to take the lead.”

The biggest challenge for the education system is mono-cultural thinking, he said. “In education we need to prepare ourselves, not passively, but to embrace a multi-cultural environment where race, ethnicity and other outward characteristics are not determinant, but where the value of one’s soul is. We can use this discussion as a springboard for serious introspection: of our underlying values, our lack of trust and confidence in people.”

When he was an adjunct instructor at Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business, Sutin said, his goal was to provide ideas that shook students out of their American-centric viewpoints.

“I told my students to read about events somewhere in the world and think about running a company in that country – put yourself in their shoes. How do these events affect your company?” he said.

American educators also need to push international experiences, such as study-abroad programs in non-English-speaking countries, where students have to learn the local conversational languages and customs.

At CCAC, Sutin established a diversity council “to create a sensitive, inclusive, environment driven by the value of the soul and not the letter of the law.”

The Nov. 17 forum was held in recognition of International Education Week 2004 (Nov. 15-19), and was sponsored by Pitt’s Office of International Services and the University Center for International Studies (UCIS).

Wolfgang Schlör, associate director of UCIS at Pitt, moderated the forum.

-Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 7

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