Durham County

What to make of proposed immigration bill? Universities like Duke want to know

President Donald Trump, flanked by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., left, and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration.
President Donald Trump, flanked by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., left, and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration. AP

At Duke University, and at other top-level universities across the country, campus leaders are trying to figure out what to make of a bill in Congress that’s designed to make it significantly harder for immigrants to secure a visa to enter the United States.

Endorsed now by U.S. President Donald Trump, the measure would set up a “points system” for federal authorities to use in weighing whether a person coming to this country to work should get in.

The framework would favor people in their early 20s to mid-30s, those who have master’s or Ph.D.-level degrees in the sciences, technology, engineering or math, and those who receive the highest-dollar job offers.

On the flip side, an advanced degree in the liberal arts, social sciences or humanities would count for no more in the points system than a bachelor’s degree — a feature with obvious implications for faculty hiring.

It thus “could potentially impact a university’s ability to hire someone outside” the favored fields, said Kristen Dennis, a Philadelphia-area attorney whose law firm does immigration work for more than 20 colleges and universities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and New York.

She added that the bill, proposed by U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, Republicans from Arkansas and Georgia, respectively, “appears to be a complete replacement of all existing employment-based” immigration procedures.

The proposal’s definitely on the radar for officials at Duke, but so far, they’ve elected to say nothing publicly about it. The Durham school’s chief spokesman, Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld, said university officials “need to review more,” and later suggested contacting the Washington-based Association of American Universities.

The group advocates for 62 highly-ranked public and private universities in the U.S. and Canada and among other things helps track immigration issues for them. But like officials at Duke, it’s loathe to say much about the Cotton-Perdue proposal yet.

Federal immigration law is “one of the most complicated and dense” set of statutes, regulations, procedures and rulings that exist, said Pedro Ribeiro, the association’s chief spokesman. “That’s why it’s taking us so long to review [the bill], because it significantly changes the U.S. immigration system. We’re going to have to take a very long and deep dive to see what the outcome is, and we’re not there yet.”

The issue matters to universities like Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill because they’re not shy about recruiting academic talent regardless of its country of origin.

We’re going to have to take a very long and deep dive to see what the outcome is, and we’re not there yet.

Pedro Ribeiro, Association of American Universities

Filings available from the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that just in fiscal 2016-17, the two schools between them helped professors, lecturers, anesthesiologists, consultants and lab analysts from France, Germany, Spain, Romania, Israel, China, Taiwan and Canada on their payroll secure permanent U.S. work authorizations.

Their academic specialties included English literature, French, accounting, archeology, physics, biology, Hebrew, Chinese and finance.

Duke and UNC each run help desks to guide students, faculty and staff through the bureaucratic maze. Duke also appears to lean on the services of Ogletree Deakins, an international law firm that has both a branch office in Raleigh and a major immigration-law practice.

When a university hires a non-U.S. professor, the first step in the immigration process involves obtain a temporary work visa, usually the so-called H-1B that’s initially good for three years, Dennis said. With that in hand, lawyers and their clients turn their attention to securing a permanent work authorization, the “green card” of lore.

The most common route to that is “special recruitment,” a process that requires the hiring institution to show the government it ran a competitive recruiting process and that the would-be immigrant is the most qualified person for the job, she said.

Another possibility is an EB-1 visa for “outstanding professors” and researchers, but that’s rarer and largely the domain of “people who are established in their careers” with major journal publications and awards to their credit, Dennis said.

Even with a lawyer’s help, the process can drag on because there’s a cap of about 140,000 employment-based, permanent visas a year, and a further restriction that no more than 7 percent of those can go to nationals of a single country. The percentage limit crops up for “countries with higher demand,” namely China and India, and can keep applicants from those “waiting years and years” for permanent status, Dennis said.

Given that the Cotton-Perdue bill would replace the existing system for employment-based visas, “we need to keep an eye on how it develops and changes” as the immigration debate in Congress unfolds, said Dennis, whose firm, Goldblum & Pollins, on its Web page says it’s been counsel for schools like the University of Pennsylvania, until July the employer of new Duke President Vince Price.

But an advocate for the bill, Center for Immigration Studies fellow David North, said he thinks it wouldn’t have much effect on the hiring practices of a well-financed institution like Duke.

Given the way the points system rewards higher salaries, “a place like Duke shouldn’t have to worry” about an applicant’s getting a score high enough to secure a visa, said North, whose group favors lowering immigration. “It may mean they don’t get him quite as cheap as they used to, but they certainly can hire foreign teachers.”

North added that he suspects the proposal ultimately “won’t get very far” for running “up against so many vested interests,” including those of Trump’s family.

In revamping the visa system it would do away with a preference for admitting foreign investors that’s popular with New York real-estate investors, he said, adding that that “sets a lot of people, rich and influential people, including in-laws of the president, against it,” North said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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