Why STEM in the Immigration Bill Should Matter to Agriculture

August 21, 2013 08:39 AM

By Wendy Fink
Associate Director for Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources
Association of Public and Land-grant Universities

Immigration reform is one of the few federal legislative areas where there is realistic hope for bipartisan compromise and real progress. The Senate’s bipartisan ‘Gang of Eight’ bill, which passed earlier this summer, contains the major priorities that the higher education community has long sought to finally address our nation’s broken immigration system. APLU was proud to support the bill.

The House is also working on immigration reform, and we hope they will soon pass legislation that leads to a conference negotiation with the Senate, ultimately yielding necessary and positive changes to our immigration laws.

Although APLU supports the Senate bill, there is still need for improvement. One especially important issue is that agriculture, food and natural resource sciences are not included in a significant provision of the Senate bill and, at this time, the House may also neglect to include these fields.

Both Chambers’ proposals provide a special green card to graduates who earned a master’s or doctorate degree in a Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics (STEM) field. The legislation wisely recognizes the need to reverse our country’s current self-defeating policy that effectively forces these STEM graduates to return to their country of origin rather than allowing them to stay here and help grow our economy. International STEM students would effectively have a green card stapled to their diplomas, enabling them to stay in the U.S. and help develop innovative solutions to our most pressing problems in medicine, transportation, energy production and other fields. Unfortunately, the Senate-approved bill and the proposed measure in the House exclude agriculture, food and natural resource sciences from the definition of STEM fields.

The Senate bill and House proposal narrowly define STEM using the Department of Education’s Classification for Instructional Programs series for computer and information sciences and support services, engineering, mathematics and statistics, biological and biomedical sciences, and physical sciences, though the House bill extends it slightly further.

So why does this matter? With agriculture sciences currently left out of the STEM definition, the immigration bills will hinder the efforts of the agriculture industry to hire the next generation of innovators and leaders. Companies like DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto Company and others will tell you that they are already having trouble finding qualified candidates in fields like agronomy and plant sciences, largely because few Americans pursue graduate degrees in the agriculture, natural resources and food sciences.

The pipeline of U.S. students interested in studying agriculture is terribly leaky. While USDA predicts that we will need 54,000 college graduates in food, renewable energy and environmental specialties each year to fill positions in agriculture, the U.S. currently produces only about 29,000 per year, including those who are non-U.S. citizens. During the last six years, 40% of all doctoral degrees in the agricultural sciences were awarded to non-U.S. citizens. In fields such as agricultural engineering and food science, the numbers reach 50%. Despite the need for these international students to remain in the U.S. to fill the employment gap in agricultural science fields, the Senate-approved bill and the House proposal would not change the current policy and fast-track these agricultural science students for green cards.

Regrettably, the immigration bills point out a larger, systemic problem that appears routinely in legislation and federal science programs. Agricultural and natural resource sciences are simply not viewed as a STEM science by many in Congress and other parts of the federal government, despite the fact that agriculture students, depending on their major, study genetics, biology, botany, zoology, microbiology, chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, geographic information systems, engineering and physics.

During the economic downturn, agriculture has been one of the few bright spots for recent college graduates, with an unemployment rate of 6.1% for those new to the field. Only the fields of recreation and education did better. Agricultural fields even beat the unemployment rate for new graduates from the life and physical sciences (7.3%), engineering (7.4%) and computers and mathematics (9.1%).

The Senate Gang of Eight bill and efforts in the House could lead to the immigration reform our nation desperately needs, and APLU supports these efforts. While we continue to work with the Hill in advancing immigration reform, we will also continue to make the case for the inclusion of agricultural and natural resource sciences as part of STEM. We encourage you to reach out to members of Congress and ask for an adjustment to the language to fix this issue.


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