One of the current immigration reform proposals advanced by both the bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight” and by President Obama is giving automatic immigrant visas (“green cards”) to foreign graduates of U.S. universities. The argument is made that if we do not give them jobs they will go home and compete against us.

To assess the logic of this proposal you should ask yourself whether you think the foreign graduate should get a visa to work in the U.S. if there are not enough jobs for American graduates. That, in effect, is the standard at present. To get a “green card”, the foreigner has to have found an employer offering a job, and the employer has to certify that no qualified U.S. workers have been found to take that job. That makes sense. Why would you want to give a visa to a foreign graduate of a U.S. university if no employer is interested in hiring that person? And why would we accept that our own graduates be disadvantaged?

But what about those graduates of U.S. universities going back home to compete with us? First, remember that this is the basis on which student visas are given in the first place. Unless you plan to return to your home country at the end of your studies, you are not supposed to be eligible for a student visa. That is what the law says, but everybody knows that the intent to return to the home country can change after a few years in the U.S. especially if a good job offer is available. The point is that no one should be surprised if a foreign student wants to return home. And, even “green cards” for foreign graduates are not going to keep all those foreign student graduates in the United States.

In addition to the chance for an employer’s sponsorship for a “green card,” there are at present about 100,000 nonimmigrant visas being given each year to foreign workers with university degrees or outstanding skills (H-1B visas). These non-immigrant work opportunities are being used by employers to hire the foreign graduates of U.S. universities in effect as probationers who hope eventually to be sponsored for a “green card.” If they don’t get sponsored for a “green card” or even a nonimmigrant visa, they are still able to take a U.S. job under a program of Occupational Practical Training that may extend up to 2 years and 5 months. The Department of Homeland Security puts the current number of OPT workers at about 70,000.

The enrollment of foreign university students has steadily climbed and there were at least 723,000 in U.S. schools in the 2010-2011 school year according to the Institute for International Education (IIE) – and not all schools provide IIE with that information.

The “green card” requirement that qualified U.S. workers have to be hired before hiring a foreign worker does not apply to the nonimmigrant H-1B visas or the OPT work status. If the H-1B law were changed to require that US workers had to be hired first, there would presumably be even more foreign graduates of U.S. universities who are not offered U.S. jobs than at present. So then the choice would be either to recognize that it is natural to expect many of those foreign graduates to leave the U.S. – they might be hired by foreign operations of U.S. companies rather than competing with them – or, if there really is a concern about those graduates going home to compete against us, then we ought to look at reducing the number of foreign students coming to the U.S. to get degrees and thereby bring the number into balance with the number that can be absorbed by the job market without displacing U.S. workers.