The Immigration 101 series tracks my course in Immigration Law at Hofstra Law School.
When my students first hear the term NonImmigrants, they are often confused. Are NonImmigrants the billions of people who never come to the U.S.? No, the term refers to people who want to come to the U.S. temporarily, but not necessarily permanently. Most foreign-born people who enter the U.S. each year are NonImmigrants.
The largest group are tourists. Each year nearly 50 million tourists come to the U.S. And they spend tens of billions of dollars here. As you may know, one of the few bright spots accompanying the decline of the dollar has been the increased incentive for tourists to come here to shop at our stores.
Another huge group of NonImmigrants are foreign students. Most American colleges rely on foreign students, who typically pay the highest tuition rate, to remain financially solvent. When the U.S. made it tough for students to come here after 911, universities saw their financial futures jeopardized.
In addition to educating top foreign students, study in the U.S. helps spread realistic views of America abroad. It also allows American students to get the kinds of contacts they will need in an international economy.
It is also good to remember that students who want to study in the U.S. are often the most favorable disposed towards us of any segment of their native population.
And universities do not just use NonImmigrant visas to bring in students, they also use them to allow visiting professors and researchers to bring their expertise to American higher education. Scientists attending international conferences, journalists from the BBC covering the presidential campaign, and AIDS researchers conducting multinational studies all rely on the NonImmigrant visa system.
The U.S. also issues NonImmigrant visas for a whole variety of high achievers. When the Yankees acquire a pitcher from the Dominican Republic, they apply for a NonImmigrant visa for him. The same is done for Canadian hockey players, touring figure skaters, and gymnasts hoping to compete in an international tournament in Los Angeles. NonImmigrant visas are obtained by the Met for a star tenor. A tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company provides a lot of work for some lucky immigration lawyer.
NonImmigrant visas also allow corporations to move staff from one country to another for the oversight and completion of special projects. So Ford can bring in a team of engineers from its British subsidiary to work with engineers in Detroit.
Companies can also bring in highly educated workers for three years to fill jobs in the high tech fields. These H1b NonImmigrants have become controversial in recent years, following a small number of fraudulent cases, and the number of visas has shrunk so much that all the visas for a year are gone in the first week they are available. This has hurt American competitiveness as the best educated people in the world are now going to work in London instead of the less friendly United States.
Equally controversial are the small number of seasonal worker visas available. These are typically used to fill agricultural jobs and work at seasonal resorts like ski lodges and beach resorts. The number of visas is so small that they are estimated to fill only a quarter of the actual need, and the application process has become so unreliable that employers often are OKed for the visas after the season has ended. In addition, while many of the other employment based NonImmigrant visas (like the H1bs) can be converted to permanent visas, these can not. Since these workers know they cannot remain permanently, they have little incentive to try to improve the condition they work under or form labor union. So this seasonal worker program needs major reform to make it more reasonably fit employer needs, while protecting immigrant workers and maintaining labor standards for the native born.
While both the H1b and seasonal worker programs need improvement, the idea that they should simply be discontinued ignores economic reality and will only encourage further recourse to illegal immigration to fill real labor needs.
When you hear some TV pundit talk about closing the border, remember that tens of millions of NonImmigrants cross the border every year. They bring their tourist dollars, their business expertise, and their desire for education. They enrich us though the arts, sports, and the sciences. Those who call for a fortress America keeping the outside world at bay would make us a cultural, scientific, and economic backwater of the third degree.