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Brushing Up the U.S. Welcome Mat

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Brushing Up the U.S. Welcome Mat

Photo by Karen Kring

Every year, thousands of foreign scholars and scientists come to the United States to work, teach and study.

Lots of them end up in Chicago.

It’s a brain trust that many say this country, and this city, need to be leaders in the global economy.

But U.S. immigration rules have made it harder for them to come here and stay here.

Some Chicago universities are working harder than ever to attract the world’s brightest scholars and students.

Now, an immigration bill making its way through the U.S. Senate might help.

As part of our Chicago Matters series Beyond Borders, Monique Parsons has this report.

Chicago Matters is an annual public information series made possible by The Chicago Community Trust, with programming by Chicago Public Radio, WTTW 11, the Chicago Public Library, and The Chicago Reporter. Visit chicagomatters-dot-org for more information.

The executive producer of Chicago Matters is Sally Eisele and the series is produced by Alexandra Salomon. Alison Cuddy is the Project Coordinator. Thanks to Stacie Johnson for production assistance.



CHATTERING VOICES…. Inside the sleek, futuristic student center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the din is so loud you almost can’t hear the El rumble overhead. Students mill about, chatting in different languages - Vietnamese, Urdu, Chinese…Many of them have been up since early morning preparing for this day, cooking dishes from home for an event billed as the “Taste of IIT.” They’re serving ibli from South India, Korean kimchi, Nigerian Zobo drink, falafel and more. The food steams in foil warming trays on folding tables.


(this is vegetarian cutlets, this is chicken cutlets, lentil cakes, this is kiken, it’s plantains, those are our desserts, …..pastry…… give me some chicken and some….$6… okay ….FADE UNDER)

Students journey to IIT on Chicago’s South Side, from more than 100 countries.

They’re here to study engineering and a variety of sciences.

Many hope to stay in the U.S. and find high-paying, high-tech jobs after graduation.

BLEND TOGETHER VOICES …young woman from Rwanda, another from India….fade under…

But there’s an uncertainty beneath the festive banter here.

Since the 9/11 attacks, people with a lot of education who try to get jobs in the United States have faced more government scrutiny, more paperwork and sometimes more than triple the visa fees. One work visa, the H1B, jumped from $185 to $685 due to a new “fraud detection fee.”

Those hurdles have universities here and elsewhere worried about a brain drain. Tamara Felder directs the International Office at the University of Chicago. If the U.S. isn’t more welcoming to highly skilled immigrants in fields like technology and medicine, she says, everyone will pay the price.

FELDER: If have an ailment, and I go to the hospital, I want to know that the best we have to offer will be available. Will that still be true 25 or 30 years from now if we continue on that path? And that’s what worries me. And once we get to that point it will be very very difficult to reverse.

The immigration bill now being debated in the U.S. Senate could help.

It would allow grad students like Erhan Eron of Turkey to work in the U.S. for two years after getting a degree. Right now, foreign students can stay just one year without a work visa.

Eron’s master’s degree in aerospace engineering from IIT could bump him ahead of less-educated immigrants when he applies for permanent residency - the " green card.” Eron says now many jobs in his field are off-limits without it - partly due to beefed-up security since 9/11.

ERON: for instance, I was applying for NASA for a job and the person you don’t have a green card, you are not citizen, you cannot apply for this job, but the person who told me was Chinese, she had Chinese accent. so you can understand that it was easier before.

The Association of American Universities and software industry groups are among those giving the new bill mixed reviews. One welcome change is the proposed increase in the “H1B” visa, the work permit granted to many high-tech workers.

Demand for these visas far exceeds supply, and the bill would nearly double the annual allotment - to 115,000 at first, then up to 180,000.

Universities say that could help graduate students get jobs and would favor people like Said al-Hallaj, a Jordanian native who specializes in developing “green” technology.


At his lab at IIT, al-Hallaj watches a student conduct an experiment over a glass cube filled with clear gel and electrodes. It’s a study that could someday lead to cleaner, greener methods for water desalination.

AL-HALLAJ: …silence…as you can see he’s on his knees now because what he’s measuring how much water is coming out when he applies different voltages, and that’s one way of evaluating, what are the performance characteristics of this material….FADE UNDER

Chicago covets this kind of high-tech research, and has put it to good use. The city is already road-testing a plug-in hybrid SUV developed by al-Hallaj’s lab. He hopes it will be a model for city fleets across the country.

Current immigration policy favors family ties over education and skills. The immigration reform plan before the Senate highlights immigrants with such specialties as technology, engineering and medicine.

That could make it easier for innovators like al-Hallaj to do their work in the U.S.

It could also cut down on red tape. al-Hallaj waited five years to get his green card - despite having an American PhD, an American wife and U.S. patents to his name. He also had to pay thousands of dollars from his own pocket to immigration lawyers. It’s not exactly a warm welcome. Still, he says, like a lot of professionals, he feels lucky.

AL-HALLAJ: come on, you know, it’s a privilege to be in this atmosphere, environment, you know it’s nothing like pressure of having kids to feed or something, loved ones to lose or someone who is fighting in a war.

Still, getting and keeping foreign students, scholars and workers hasn’t always been easy for Chicago universities.

In the past three years, several have added staff to help foreign students and faculty get visas. At the University of Chicago, Tamara Felder’s staff and budget at the international office have doubled.

Academic departments at U of C paid out $150,000 in visa fees last year alone. And there have been plenty of headaches along the way: The Pakistani student who had to delay his freshman year due to a lengthy background check by the immigration service; the noted Chicago archeologist who got detained at O’Hare after every trip to Syria for fieldwork.

FELDER: There were so many glitches it was unbelievable….

FELDER: Actually some colleagues, there were jokes among some of our lists, where somebody says I can’t do this anymore, I can’t stand it, I’m going to open a bakery, does anybody want to join me? and droves said they would.

That may sound amusing but it highlights a grim fact: U.S. competitors in other countries know education people are shopping around.

Canada, Australia, Germany, and England are among the countries aggressively courting international talent with easy-to-get visas and lower fees. A recent study by the Immigration Policy Center found that Singapore hopes to double its foreign student population by 2010….Sweden’s already done that, and New Zealand’s has more than tripled.


Vinit Prabu is from South India, and he earns his bachelor’s in engineering from IIT this spring. As he helps man a food table at the Taste of IIT, he says he dreams of designing the next hot cell phone or the next generation hybrid car.

PRABU: I’m actually open to working anywhere, wherever opportunities take me. I’m not bound by the united states, I’m not limitied to the united states.

Prabu may not be watching the latest immigration debate closely, but the universities that want to attract students like him certainly are. And so are the high-tech companies that could hire him. Both universities and businesses will be lobbying hard in the coming weeks. They want to make sure the bill does add more HIB visas and makes it easier for skilled students and workers to stay.

It’s in the interest of the U.S., they say, to help more of the world’s brightest people call this country home.

For Chicago Public Radio, I’m Monique Parsons.

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