Here’s a Bizarre Little Corner of Our Immigration Policy

There’s a strange little corner of our immigration policy that simultaneously permits the admission of a group of alien graduate students in high-tech fields, while there is another federal policy that all but denies those grad students private-sector jobs in their field.

The combination of these two policies means that, all else being equal, it costs our research universities more to train Iranian PhDs in physics, say, than it does to train a comparable Canadian or American. U.S. policy makes it very difficult for the Iranians to get summer jobs, which means that — at least at one institution I know — the university pays them in the summer time.

In fact, you could describe it as how our sanctions against Iran are costing our own research universities a tidy sum.

I stumbled onto this anomaly in the course of helping graduate students at a D.C.-area university with their income tax returns. While they are always completely outnumbered by Chinese and Indian students, we always see a dozen or so Iranian grad students each year, usually seeking PhDs, and usually in science or technology.

After a while I noticed that few, unlike their classmates, ever seemed to secure off-campus employment. I started asking about it and was told “HR people don’t want to deal with us, they have to get a license from the U.S. Department of Commerce to hire us, and they don’t want to bother.”

Meanwhile, I see plenty of Indians and many Chinese with summer jobs at high-tech firms.

Sure enough, there is, as I knew, a ban on the export of high technology to Iran. There is also the “deemed export” rule, which says in effect that American business not only cannot export high-tech stuff of various kinds, it cannot allow aliens from certain nations (Iran, Syria, North Korea, Sudan) to have exposure to such technology without a license from Commerce.

In other words, hiring a worker from Iran to work in a high-tech environment is regarded as morally equivalent to shipping high-tech equipment to that nation.

The following is part of the Department’s Export Administration Regulations (EAR):

(2) Export of technology or software. (See paragraph (b)(9) for provisions that apply to encryption source code and object code software.) “Export” of technology or software, excluding encryption software subject to “EI” controls, includes:
(I) Any release of technology or software subject to the EAR in a foreign country; or

(ii) Any release of technology or source code subject to the EAR to a foreign national. Such release is deemed to be an export to the home country or countries of the foreign national.

For the full collection of the Department’s Q’s and A’s on this subject see here.

Once upon a time, in the days of the late Shah (who shipped large numbers of students to the United States, it was said, to keep them out of his nation’s politics) Iran sent more foreign students to the United States than any other nation. The peak year, according to the Institute for International Education, was 51,310 students in 1979/1980.

Then frosty relations between the two nations slowly drove that number down to 1,660 in 1998-99. But this traffic has staged a partial comeback since, and in 2012/13 it was 8,744. IIE says that more than 81 percent of the Iranian students are in grad school.

So we now have a system where we do not have a visa-issuing office in Iran, but students from that county can get U.S. visas in Abu Dhabi or at other consulates.

We allow the students to enter the nation and to study, often at our expense, but we do not let many of them work. (There would be no employment bars for, say, art historians, but then I never see any of them from Iran.)

Further, while we are punishing Iran with economic sanctions we are fully funding some of its citizens’ first-class scientific educations.

My sense is that the universities continue to educate without thinking through the consequences in this particular setting; DHS and State, similarly, continue to admit foreign students; and Commerce continues to enforce sanctions — and no one is looking at the whole picture.

Alice in Wonderland comes to mind.

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