The Wall Street Journal Gets the RAISE Act Wrong

by Reihan Salam

According to Akhila Satish, writing in the Wall Street Journal, the RAISE Act would have prevented a majority of foreign-born winners of the Nobel Prize from “staying” in the U.S. Either Satish is being deliberately misleading or she is confused.

She writes that RAISE creates a point system to allocate employment-based green cards. Where she goes wrong is in failing to understand, or failing to acknowledge, that more than half of all green cards in recent years have been awarded to foreign-born individuals who already live in the U.S. under various nonimmigrant visas, including the H-1B visa.

If Satish were hoping to give a complete picture of how RAISE Act would change the landscape for future immigrants, she’d presumably point out that foreigners would still be able to apply for H-1Bs, as they do now, and indeed that foreign researchers are especially advantaged in this regard, as H-1B visas granted to U.S. universities are exempt from the overall H-1B cap. Nor does the legislation impact nonimmigrant student visas. The RAISE Act wouldn’t affect foreign graduate students at all.

Even when it comes to getting green cards, under the RAISE Act it is likely that the skilled workers living and working in the U.S. under nonimmigrant visas would find themselves in a no less favorable position than they’re in today. The legislation wouldn’t change the number of employment-based visas. What it would change is the number of family-sponsored visas.

Needless to say, family-sponsored visas are not the main way elite research scientists enter the U.S. How did Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, one of the scientsists Satish cites, initially enter the U.S.? It’s a bit of a long story, but the short version is that he enrolled as a Ph.D. student at Ohio University. The RAISE Act would have done nothing to prevent him from doing so. He went on to marry a U.S. citizen, which a foreign graduate student would be very welcome to do under the RAISE Act. After scrambling for a bit to find his true calling as a scholar, he moved on to pursue further graduate studies at UCSD, and then he left for a postdoc at Yale.

The RAISE Act would have stopped Ramakrishnan at precisely none of these stages. With the RAISE Act in effect, Ramakrishnan would have had multiple routes to eventually securing a permanent visa.

What about Jack Szostak, another of Satish’s examples? He entered the U.S. as a graduate student at Cornell University. Again, no change. Rather quickly, he established his own laboratory at Harvard. My guess is that Harvard would have been quite happy to help secure one of those cap-exempt H-1B visas for him, had they existed at the time (as they most assuredly will in the event the RAISE Act becomes law). Soon after, he headed over to Massachusetts General Hospital, a job that I’m guessing would have made him an attractive candidate under the RAISE Act’s point system.

Satish also mentions Turkish-born Aziz Sancar, who came to the U.S. as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, funded by a NATO fellowship. He went to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Yale, where he met his U.S.-born wife, a graduate student at the time. It is safe to say that the RAISE Act would not have gotten in Sancar’s way at any stage.

I have to assume that Satish chose those individuals because they’d help her make her case. But as we can see, not a single one of them would have been meaningfully disadvantaged by the RAISE Act, and in fact they’d likely have had a somewhat easier time securing permanent visas under a less arbitrary, more transparent system.

Now, one could argue that Satish was talking about whether these immigrant scientists would have been allowed to “stay” in the U.S. Fair enough. It is true that under the RAISE Act, individuals with profiles like these would not have been immediately granted green cards on applying for them, with no regard to their record of accomplishment or means of self-support. But of course that is already true, and it was true when they entered the U.S. on nonimmigrant visas.

Satish tries to pull a neat trick by misrepresenting the U.S. immigration system as it currently exists, and then characterizing the RAISE Act as a dramatic break. But it’s not, as indeed a cursory look at how the immigration system works for foreign students and researchers shows.

What Satish is doing is not praising and defending the system that allowed these three Nobel Laureates into the country. Rather, she is calling for a radically revised system in which permanent visas are given out as freely as cap-exempt H-1Bs. That is a fine position to take. But she shouldn’t have to mislead about what the RAISE Act does to make her case.

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