Op-Ed: We Need Foreign Students to Keep "America First"

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Twenty-three years ago, as a college graduate in Delhi, I lined up at the U.S. embassy hoping to have my student visa approved. That visa changed my life forever.

I’d enrolled in a computer science master’s program at the University of Denver, thinking that an American education coupled with post-graduate work experience in the states would prepare me for a career back home. But I never left. As it turned out, that package deal — study and work — allowed me to become a CTO and serial entrepreneur in the U.S., creating hundreds of jobs for Americans.

But now President Trump and a federal lawsuit want to restrict the pathway that allowed me — and so many other bright international students — to contribute to the American economy. It’s called the Optional Practical Training program (OPT), and it permits foreign students at American universities to work here up to three years after graduation. OPT is good for the students, of course, but American companies depend on it, too; it’s how businesses fill worker shortages quickly and plan for longer-term visas. OPT is so important to the American tech industry that sixty companies, including Google, Apple and Amazon, as well as the Colorado Business Roundtable, just signed an amicus brief in its defense.

President Trump says he wants to put American companies first, but killing OPT would do the opposite. The direct costs of ending the program would total over $130 million, according to New American Economy. And it would worsen an already substantial worker shortage. In 2015, Colorado had fifteen STEM jobs posted online for each unemployed STEM worker, according to Burning Glass Technologies. Finally, it would help our competitors, as foreign graduates take their American knowledge and skills to other countries. There are a lot of these grads: 27 percent of the country’s STEM master’s graduates and 37 percent of our STEM Ph.D. holders are on temporary visas.

Op-Ed: We Need Foreign Students to Keep "America First"EXPAND
Courtesy of Vivek Vaidya

These workers are in demand, both from large companies and the ever-growing number of startups, especially in tech hubs like Denver and Boulder. I co-founded a venture studio called super{set}. The companies in our portfolio depend on highly creative and genuine experts in specific fields like artificial intelligence, cloud computing and distributed systems. Foreign STEM grads are often the only people who check all these boxes. I would love to hire Americans, but they’re in short supply. Last month, I put out a job posting for a data scientist on LinkedIn and over 90 percent of the people who responded were Indians in American graduate programs. OPT is the only way I could hire any of them.

By saddling OPT with restrictions, and possibly letting a lawsuit shutter it completely, the Trump administration is slowing American innovation and growth. It’s just one more way that the White House is putting its anti-immigrant ideology ahead of American economic interests. This year alone, my company has seen three potential high skilled workers get stuck in the visa system because of new regulations. There are four more we’d like to hire, but the process is dragging on.

My last company, Krux, employed a total of 170 people when it was acquired. Before that, Rapt, where I was the first engineer to be hired, created 100 new jobs before its acquisition by Microsoft. Super{set}Venture Studio will surely create hundreds more American jobs, but only if we can build a team of world-class STEM employees.

The jobs I’ve created and the taxes I’ve paid were possible because the University of Denver brought me here and because OPT allowed me to stay. Similarly, my companies succeeded — and created hundreds of jobs for Americans — because I could hire a small number of foreign-born employees with specialized skills. Foreign graduates of American universities are a gift, delivering economic prosperity for us all. Let’s not throw them away.

Vivek Vaidya is a graduate of the University of Denver and co-founder of the venture studio super{set}. An immigrant from India, he is now proud to be a U.S. citizen.

Westword occasionally publishes op-eds about issues of interest to Denver residents. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to editorial@westword.com.

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