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Rethinking the Border

by Alexander Gelfand

In recent years, restrictive immigration policies have undercut industries from technology to higher education, including at Rice Business. Easing those restrictions could help schools and companies attract top talent and regain a competitive edge, experts say.

The past four years have seen some of the most restrictive immigration policies in generations take effect in the U.S. Experts are still analyzing the full effect of those policies, but it’s clear that they’ve taken a toll on a broad swath of industries, including higher education. The restrictions dealt a major blow to Rice Business and countless other academic institutions, making it harder to recruit the best and the brightest from around the world.

At Rice Business, enrollment was down among talented candidates who would otherwise have set their sights on the school from abroad. Stress was up among those who had already made the journey. And the ripple effects were felt across the board.

“It’s taken an emotional toll on our staff and on many of the students whose classmates are struggling under the anxiety that comes with all of those policy changes,” said Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez. “The pain you feel is knowing that the foreign students who did so much to come to your country and study with you just can’t relax and feel welcome.”

The situation is especially troubling considering how important international students are to the Rice Business experience, providing access to a global pool of talent and to an inherently diverse body of experiences and opinions.

“We learn from and with each other in the classroom, and the perspectives and backgrounds of international students are irreplicable,” Rodriguez says. “We could not produce the type and the value of education we do without them.”

The same issue applies to all U.S. companies looking to attract top talent and stay competitive in the global market, he says. And while Rodriguez is guardedly optimistic that the next few years could bring welcome policy changes, experts agree that it will take time to rebuild the reputation of the United States as a country that welcomes immigrants rather than shuns them.

New Bottle, Old Wine

The restrictions of recent years, including the so-called Muslim ban on immigration from countries in Africa and the Middle East and a drastic reduction in the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., were far from the first time America has cracked down on newcomers.

“It’s not as if this is something new. It’s as American as apple pie,” says Steve Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Rice. “Whenever we have a large wave of immigration, we have a nativist response.”

The Immigration Act of 1924, for example — which Klineberg describes as “one of the most viciously racist acts ever passed by Congress” — completely excluded immigrants from Asia and imposed strict quotas on those from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Unlike previous attempts at reshaping the immigration system, however, virtually all of the policy changes of the past four years were made via executive actions and administrative maneuvers rather than through legislative action by Congress. This has implications for the Biden administration, since anything done by presidential fiat can be similarly undone. But that raises the prospect of successive administrations reversing those reversals, and of immigration policy becoming a perpetual political football.

“Nothing that is done from the president’s desk as an executive order is a permanent solution,” says Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

To achieve both rapid and lasting change, the Biden administration will therefore need to work along parallel tracks, Payan says. On the one hand, it can issue executive actions to quickly overturn selected Trump-era policies. On the other, it must court congressional support for comprehensive immigration reform that would combine some form of legal status for undocumented immigrants with enhanced border security and a more rational approach to employment-based visas.

That dual focus was evident in President Biden’s first flurry of immigration-related moves. Those included not only executive actions to end the Muslim ban and halt the aggressive deportation of unauthorized immigrants, but also a call for legislative action to provide the latter with permanent status and a path to citizenship — something that would represent the most ambitious congressional overhaul of immigration law in decades.

Short Game, Long Game

When it comes to executive actions, some reversals can be effected immediately, experts say. That includes reinstating visa programs that allow international students to attend schools such as Rice and secure employment with American firms.

Guidance issued by the previous administration regarding visas made it much harder, and in some cases impossible, for foreign nationals to study and work in the U.S. Undoing that guidance would be good not only for foreign jobseekers but for American companies, too: The kneecapping of the H-1B visa program, for example, has made it possible for only the largest firms to assume the costs and burdens of hiring foreign workers, leaving smaller firms unable to compete for global talent.

“That’s not good for competitiveness or equity,” Rodriguez says.

Fully reversing the effects of specific immigration policies through the use of executive actions will take time, but getting the ball rolling involves little more than a stroke of the presidential pen. In the long run, however, comprehensive legislative reform will require the current administration and its allies to make the case for immigration to the American people.

Fortunately, it’s a compelling one. America’s future depends on immigration: The fertility rate for native-born Americans has fallen below the so-called replacement rate, meaning that the country can no longer replenish its own population — or its workforce. That, say Rodriguez and Payan, represents a looming demographic crisis of the sort that has inflicted so much economic pain on Europe and Japan.

At the local level, Klineberg already sees the writing on the wall. His own research shows that Houston’s growth has been driven entirely by immigration since 1982, with a steady influx of new arrivals fueling the city’s diversity and economic vitality. “No city has benefited from immigration more than Houston,” he says.

With pent-up demand for labor across all skill levels in industries ranging from engineering and medicine to construction and daycare, the importance of immigration to the economy will only grow: A report by the Center for Houston’s Future predicts that by 2036, 57 percent of all new jobs in Houston will be filled by immigrants.

And while critics contend that immigrants take American jobs from native-born workers, the idea of immigration as a zero-sum game ignores the extent to which immigrants help grow the economic pie for everyone, Rodriguez argues.

“It is certainly true that immigrants compete for the jobs that we all compete for,” he says. “On the other hand, immigrants of all types bring skills we need and make the U.S. much more productive. And it’s that general productivity that converts this from being a zero-sum proposition into something that makes the economy larger and more successful overall.”

Alexander Gelfand is a freelance writer based in New York City who often covers business, science and social justice.

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