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America at Its Best is Open to the World

February 04, 2011 - Posted by Ali Noorani

What connects Chicago’s bid for the Olympics and the drama unfolding in Egypt?


The United States’ reputation as a welcoming nation.


In October 2009, President and First Lady Obama traveled to Copenhagen to make a personal pitch for the Games to come to their hometown, the Windy City.  During the question and answer session, an International Olympic Committee representative asked the President about United States’ ability to welcome foreigners, pointing out that entering the country can be “a rather harrowing experience.”


To his credit, the President responded, “One of the legacies I want to see is a reminder that America at its best is open to the world.”


Granted, the issue raised here was one of tourist visas and passport control, but the way the United States is seen as treating foreigners was, without question, a reason why the 2016 games will be in Rio de Janeiro, not Chicago. 


The majority of foreigners visit America to see family and go to Disneyland.  Reasonable security is one thing, but the rules must be applied in a way that does not make us look hostile to outsiders.  We are certainly not at our best when we make arriving visitors feel like criminals.  It just doesn’t make sense.


Another aspect of our immigration system that doesn’t make sense is how we treat foreign students.  In his 2011 State of the Union address, the President spoke of our higher educational institutions as a magnet to the world, “Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities.”  However, once we train the world’s students, we reverse the polarity and send them home, as Obama went on to say, “But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.”


The Administration sees our higher education system as more than a magnet for future innovators: it is a magnet for the world’s young who flee the stunted economies – and dangerous environments – of their homes to seek the American Dream.


In a National Journal article from February 1, 2011, Marc Ambinder described how the President asked his advisors, “What do Yemenis, Qataris and Egyptians like about the U.S.?”


The answer, in the case of Egypt, was the American education system. The competition for visas to study inside the U.S., particularly among those with a bent toward the hard sciences, was fierce. And it was considered a point of pride for a family member to brag about his brother studying overseas. The National Security Council and the State Department turned this nugget of insight into policy: Obama would expand the number of educational visas available to qualified Egyptian students. The State Department would increase its direct outreach to Egyptians; it would hold entrepreneurship and science summits, and would convene gatherings of Egyptians to meet with visiting American scientists. As the White House’s focus turned to Egypt late last week, the aspirations of young Egyptians were very much on the president’s mind.


Our higher education system creates the innovators of tomorrow, and weakens the extremist of today. 


It is overly simplistic to consider these only as examples of tourism or education, wholly separate from immigration policy.  While pure immigration policy lies within the Department of Homeland Security, it is clearly intertwined with the mission, goals and operations of the Departments of State and Commerce. 


Unfortunately, our immigration system does not serve our nation’s security, commerce or foreign policy interests.  It is within our power to reform our immigration system so, once again, we control our destiny as a nation:


  • Put in place security measures to ensure foreign students attend and graduate from their matriculating institutions, and grant them green cards upon graduation;

  • Update the work visa system so that it meets the needs of our workforce and our economy;

  • Create a path to citizenship that requires undocumented immigrants to get right with the law;

  • Shift our border security strategy so that it focuses on ports of entry, rather than funneling money to expensive boondoggles in the desert;

  • Value the sanctity of the family by making sure family immigration remains the core of who we are; and,

  • Treat people with the respect we all deserve.

This is not an impossible task.  It is a political task that requires leadership from our politicians. Will they deliver?



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