U.S. businesses would benefit from the talent that immigration reform would make available
When Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman stood with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and more than a hundred of Chicago's corporate leaders recently to argue that comprehensive immigration reform was critically needed by American business, I was asked to begin the press conference with a prayer. It's not often I pray surrounded by corporate CEOs, but I agreed to it for one important reason.
I know the potential employees they cannot hire.
A DePaul graduate whom I will call Ahmed is a case in point. After receiving degrees in finance and information technology, Ahmed was recruited by two major U.S. firms. He begged me to help him become eligible to accept the job offer. I was unable to do so, and as a result, he returned to a Pakistan he never knew and where no one knew him.
Ahmed attended high school in Illinois. He has a Chicago accent, a brilliant mind, and wants nothing more than to work and build a life in this country. His parents brought him, undocumented, to the U.S. as an infant. Employers desperately wanted his combination of skills, but the United States' annual limit on employment-based green cards could not accommodate him.
That limit fails many businesses that cannot find sufficient U.S. citizens with the knowledge and skill set to fill such positions. Ahmed returned to Pakistan and introduced himself to distant relatives, trying to build a life there. Thankfully, he eventually found a job and more welcome reception in Canada, where he will soon move to become part of that country's citizenry.
Doug Oberhelman told us that there are more than 100 companies competing for Caterpillar's business in China, and recounted stories of meeting leaders from those companies who had once wanted nothing more than to stay in the U.S. after graduating from college.
DePaul and other U.S. universities educate such students every year and then, unfortunately, our immigration policies send them back overseas, only to compete against U.S. companies. It is not that these students are taking jobs from other Americans. In fact, U.S. companies have more specialized openings than American students alone can fill. Great companies follow the talent. With such open positions, these companies have had little choice but to seek that talent by relocating overseas.
This is lunacy. It is time for sensible, balanced and, yes, comprehensive immigration reform. Public policy needs to serve the public, and our current immigration policies actually work against our economic interests. Those policies take human form every day at America's universities.
Two years ago, another bright student approached my office in desperate need of help after finding herself in a terrible bind. The student — I will call her Julia — had been the salutatorian of her high school class and continued her outstanding academic accomplishments after coming to DePaul. She was the type of student DePaul prizes: a high achiever who is engaged in our community and contributes to society.
Julia's life had extraordinary promise and one insurmountable hurdle. As an unauthorized immigrant, her educational funds were quickly depleting. Charity, along with the few private scholarships that DePaul was able to find for her, could not compensate for her shortfall in resources. Employers could not legally hire her, so earning money to pay for a degree herself was problematic. She was ineligible for student loans. Federal and state student aid was unavailable. Unable to pay her tuition, this young woman saw her dreams begin to crumble, all because at 8 months old she was carried across a border.
When President Barack Obama renewed his efforts to reform the nation's immigration legislation, he also renewed hope among many college students that their hard work would eventually pay off in the form of permanent, legal residency.
Those students could accomplish this through the DREAM Act, a bill that unfortunately has stalled in Congress since Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced it in 2001. The DREAM Act paves the way for young people who came to the United States illegally as children to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements, such as finishing high school, serving in the military or seeking a college degree.
President Obama has voiced support for the DREAM Act, and so have many university presidents, including myself. It is my hope that members of Congress will throw their support behind the full range of comprehensive immigration reform and strengthen our nation as it has always been strengthened throughout our history — with the talents and hard work of unexpected yet valuable immigrants.
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