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MELBOURNE, Australia — He admits it: José Lopez always dreamed of going to America and using his training in information technology to make his fortune.

immigration policy
Alfredo Bolanos, a Mexican who chose to go to Australia instead of the United States, where he felt unwelcome. “Nobody wants to be in a place where people don’t want you,” he said. Credit: Fiona Morris

But even if he hadn’t been put off by the rhetoric from across the border about building walls and banning people based on their religion, there were 52 times more applicants for visas to emigrate to the United States from his native Mexico last year than were made available under a complex quota system. And even if a technology company agreed to sponsor him, that route, too, was closed off when the number of workers who applied for those kinds of visas in the first week was three times the annual cap.

Which is why Lopez has come to find himself in a classroom in Melbourne boning up on his English and preparing for a new life in Australia, a country that invites skilled, well-educated immigrants like him with comparatively open arms.

“I wanted to go to Silicon Valley, but I don’t feel like I’m welcome in the United States,” Lopez said. “Australia has much more of a happy face for immigrants.”

Much, much more of a happy face. While the immigration debate in the United States and elsewhere is focused largely on unskilled laborers and humanitarian refugees, and proposals to update U.S. immigration laws remain mired in political dysfunction, Australia and other nations have been waging an aggressive global competition for highly skilled professionals like Lopez, who has been given a visa to work here.

Nearly seven out of 10 immigrants here are accepted based on being able to do jobs in fields such as engineering that the government and employers say there aren’t enough domestic workers to fill. In the United States — where technology companies in particular are sounding warnings about a similar skills gap they say is contributing to a near-record 5.6 million job openings — the proportion of immigrants admitted for their skills is less than two in 10. For advanced professional skills, the number is about one in 17, the Department of Homeland Security reports. The rest are relatives of people already here, plus refugees and asylum-seekers.

“We are not keeping pace with what the rest of the world is doing,” said Andy Halataei, senior vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Information Technology Industry Council, which advocates for immigration reform to change this. “We don’t have a high-skilled immigration system that acts to attract international talent.”

That talent includes foreign students who are trained at and graduate from American colleges and universities only to confront a system critics variously describe as “absurd” and “utterly insane” that makes it all but impossible for most to stay. Students who come to Australia, by comparison, are allowed to stick around for from 18 months to four years on temporary visas that, for many, lead to permanent citizenship.

“It’s one of the most absurd paradoxes of our system, that it is so easy to come here to the United States and get a world-class education, and then we immediately send you home to compete against us,” Halataei said. “No one would ever design a system like that.”

Now there’s a proposal in Australia to take even further advantage of this by offering visas through a lottery to students trained at U.S. and U.K. universities and colleges but forced by immigration rules to leave.

“Australia can capitalize” on British and American complacency, Australia’s Migration Council, which floated the idea, observed.

It already has. Australia’s focus on accepting immigrants with skills is expected to add 1.6 trillion Australian dollars, or about $1.2 trillion, to its gross domestic product through 2050, the Migration Council estimates. That’s a gain of 5.9 percent per capita over what could have been expected without them. Rather than being a drain on the economy, Australia’s immigrants by 2050 will each contribute 10 percent more to it than its non-immigrants.

Seven out of 10 immigrants to Australia are accepted based on having skills the government and employers say are needed. In the United States the proportion of immigrants admitted for their skills is less than two in 10.

“That’s big biscuits,” said Henry Sherrell, a former policy advisor at the Migration Council.

If trade barriers and trade quotas defined global economic competition in the 20th century, said Sherrell, “People are going to be the next thing, and labor. And the countries that do it first are going to be at an advantage.”

Australia’s is not a perfect system, and even its supporters acknowledge there are shortcomings to its skilled-migration program. There are also big advantages.

So highly educated are these newcomers, for example, they are expected to push up the proportion of the population with college and university degrees by 60 percent by 2050. The United States is trying to boost its proportion of degree-holders, too, but is so far behind that it will fall short by nearly 20 million college-educated workers as soon as 2025, according to the Lumina Foundation, a principal advocate of this effort. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

Related: US falls behind other nations in the global knowledge economy, says 46-country report

And so young are they, the immigrants provide a “demographic dividend” helping offset the huge number of soon-to-be retirees that threatens Australia’s capacity — like the ability of the United States, Japan and some European nations — to keep up with the cost of medical care and other entitlements.

immigration policy
Immigrants to Australia in a government-subsidized English-language class in Sydney. Credit: Fiona Morris

Skilled immigration “has served the interests of the broader community well,” an independent advisory body, the Australian Government Productivity Commission, pronounced in November.

In Australia, “We speak about immigration as a national gain, not a cost to society,” said Jenni Blencowe, manager of research and policy for Australia’s largest provider of services for immigrants, AMES — it originally stood for Adult Migrant English Service— the reception area of whose Melbourne headquarters is hung with photographs of smiling immigrants at work. “It is economically driven, and we’re quite up front about saying that.”

In a crowded office building in the Sydney central business district, dozens of these immigrants are learning English and how to write resumés and conduct themselves in job interviews and in the workplace — a culture shock for some in proudly casual Australia, said Michael Cox, general manager for English and “foundation skills” at Navitas, a private company that provides these classes under contract to the government. (“Some of them have trouble with things like not having to call the boss ‘sir,’” Cox said.)

In a single classroom off a corridor buzzing in a Babel of languages is an electrical engineer from Iraq, an industrial engineer from Peru, and a biology teacher from Macedonia.

Science and language teachers are among the kinds of workers in demand here, and another immigrant who’s in the room is Alfredo Bolanos, a Mexican, like Lopez, and a Spanish teacher.

“I never expected I was going to come here, said Bolanos. “Most of the people that come from my hometown have family in the United States.”

But they tell stories of hostile receptions — something he said he experienced himself when, arriving in the United States on a field trip with young students, “We all felt like we were being interrogated: ‘Why are you coming here?’”

Bolanos said, “We have this whole culture of songs about how [Mexican immigrants] feel in America. I didn’t feel welcome to come to the United States. Here we have better conditions. I didn’t expect [Australians] to give me a big welcome, but they accept you as one more person who wants to assimilate in the society.”

His classmates nodded as Bolanos continued. “Nobody wants to be in a place where people don’t want you,” he said. “I don’t want to be treated special. I just want to be part of the society. Probably [the United States is] losing other people.”

Australia, in the meantime, had been gaining them. More than one in four Australians were born overseas, the highest proportion in 120 years, and immigration is by far the biggest contributor to population growth. The top countries of origin are the United Kingdom, neighboring New Zealand, China, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam. That’s changing Australia’s ethnic composition; since the turn of the millennium, the number of Chinese-born Australians has more than tripled, the government reports, and the number of Indians quadrupled.

It isn’t always easy in Australia, either, some of these immigrants say. About 15 percent said in a survey that they had been discriminated against on the basis of their race, religion, or ethnic origin here, where non-Europeans were officially banned as recently as the 1950s. An experiment by British and Australian academics found that, to get a job, a person with a Chinese name had to submit 68 percent more applications than a person with an Anglo-Saxon-sounding one. “Real Australians Say Welcome,” billboards like one near the main train station in Melbourne urge, as a way of lowering divisions that persist between native-born and new Australians.

immigration policy
Sylvia Azer, an Egyptian who got a job in Sydney, but whose husband hasn’t been able to. “He’s frustrated,” she said. Credit: Fiona Morris

Skilled immigrants don’t always necessarily get the jobs for which they were admitted. Some turn out to be overqualified for the positions available to them, leading to stories of electrical engineers driving taxis. Only about half said in a survey that their new jobs matched their experience, and the Australian Government Productivity Commission confirmed that at least 30 percent of highly educated immigrants appear to be overqualified for the jobs they’re in, compared to 22 percent of their Australian-born counterparts.

When Sylvia Azer and her husband left high-level jobs in Kuwait to come to Sydney, she said, the Egyptian-born couple found that, “Even if you came with all your skills, you can’t get a job as good as the job you left.” And while she has found work, said Azer, her husband—an information technology professional—still hasn’t gotten a single interview, and stays home to take care of their three children.

“He’s frustrated,” she said. “The lack of local work experience, and being overqualified, actually works against people.”

Immigrating to Australia also still involves the reams of paperwork all governments seem to inflict on new arrivals. For Azer and her husband, that took three years. Manzoor Murshed, who moved from Bangladesh, spent two years filling out the forms.

“It’s a long process,” he said.

Related: China downturn, increased competition could affect supply of foreign students

But when they saw his work experience — Murshed was a high-level network administrator — “It was more welcoming.” And it was easier than emigrating to the United States, he said. “The system in the United States is not very clear,” said Murshed, who now has a job in Melbourne he said fits his skills. “Here at least it’s clear that first you do this and then you do that.”

”I don’t feel like I’m welcome in the United States. Australia has much more of a happy face for immigrants.”

For much of its modern history Australia has been proactive about recruiting immigrants. It had to be, as far from Europe as it is. In the second half of the 19th century, some Australian regional authorities even paid immigrants’ fares to settle in the sparsely populated countryside.

“Australia has always considered immigration in economic terms,” said Andrew Markus, an historian at Monash University in Melbourne. “The dominant ethic in Australia is that immigration is good for the country.”

More than two-thirds of Australians think immigration makes the country stronger, Markus found last year in an annual survey he conducts for an Australian foundation that supports immigration. In the United States, the figure is about half, according to the Pew Research Center. Only a minority of Australians think there are too many immigrants, compared to a majority in every other country except Canada. In the most comparable survey in the United States, which dates to 2006 and was conducted by a group that advocates for slowing immigration called the Center for Immigration Studies, 68 percent of Americans said immigration levels were too high.

For Australians, “There’s recognition that immigration provides an economic advantage,” said Peter McDonald, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra. “It’s quite accepted, certainly by employers, but also broadly by the community.”

Of course, an emphasis on immigrants with skills leaves less room for humanitarian refugees and unskilled workers. “You’re not going to be taking rural farmers from western China, but you might be taking some of the best and brightest from Shanghai,” said Sherrell, who is sympathetic to this criticism. “Is that the perfect thing to do as a global citizen? It may not be good for poor people who would like to come here, but it’s good for Australia.”

Australia will give permanent residency to 190,000 immigrants this year, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection reports, nearly 130,000 of them because they have skills the government or employers say are needed: information technology, for example, engineering, and accounting.

To be accepted as skilled immigrants, applicants must be sponsored by employers, states, or territories, or have other links to Australia or enough of their own money to establish a company or invest in an Australian business. They can also apply individually, without a sponsor, and then look for a job. Points are awarded for each of these things, and there are additional points for being able to do the highest-demand jobs, having Australian work experience, and demonstrating English language skills.

There’s also a program for skilled immigrants to live in Australia temporarily, purportedly to help supply the flexibility required to respond to ups and downs in the economy. Called the 457 visa, it’s good for up to four years, and some employers use it as a way to try out workers they eventually sponsor to stay for good. More than 70 percent of 457 visa holders in a survey said they planned to apply for permanent citizenship.

Related: Number of Americans with college degrees growing more slowly than advocates want

Not everyone is happy with this system. The national association of engineers has begun a registration program to verify that engineers who arrive on 457 visas are actually qualified, for instance. After a four-year fight, Australian dentists managed to have their profession taken off the needed-skills list when a rise in the number of graduates from Australian dental schools meant they were battling with immigrants for business. State health departments have been found to pass over newly minted Australian-trained nurses because they can import much more experienced nurses from abroad. And unions contend that immigrants not only take Australians’ jobs, but are such an easy source of already-skilled labor that employers are forgoing professional development and training for Australian workers. The unemployment rate here is 5.8 percent, the government reports, slightly higher than it is in the United States.

Foreign students and some temporary immigrants have allegedly been exploited, most notably by 7-Eleven stores that are under government investigation for systematically underpaying them, or not paying them at all for long periods, in a scandal that has spread to other convenience and fast-food franchises. Immigrants on 457 visas, critics say, are also vulnerable to employers who hold the fate of their permanent residency in their hands. More than one in 10 say they are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with what they’re paid, and about the same proportion say that they’re unhappy with their jobs in general.

Almost all of these same charges — that it lets companies bring in cheaper foreign labor to replace Americans and exploits them by controlling whether they can stay in the United States or have to leave — have been levied at the U.S. H-1B visa program, the principal route for skilled immigrants to come to the United States, which is also temporary and generally requires employer sponsorship.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a massive demand for H-1B visas. There were 233,000 applicants last year in just the first few days for the annual maximum of 85,000 H-1B visas awarded by lottery, 20,000 of which are reserved for master’s degree holders; the government stopped accepting any more after the first week.

Some American employers want more H-1B visas. A coalition of technology leaders that includes Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates is among the interests pushing for reforms to make it easier for skilled professionals to come to the United States, just as it is in Australia and other economic rivals such as Canada, where skilled workers make up nearly half of immigrants admitted.

But controversial legislation in Congress to do this is stalled. President Barack Obama in late 2014 by executive action ordered that skilled workers with advanced degrees or “exceptional ability” be made eligible for temporary visas, even if they don’t have an employer sponsor, along with inventors, researchers, and entrepreneurs who offer “significant public benefit”; those changes are still waiting for final rules to be written by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Critics fear that, while this drags on, the world’s supply of skilled people, and the brainpower they represent, will go instead to places like Australia. As evidence they cite the little-noticed fact that the proportion of international students enrolled at U.S. universities and colleges is already slipping. While America still leads the world in the actual number of international students it attracts, the U.S. share of this global education business has dropped since 2001 from nearly 30 percent to less than 20 percent, according to NAFSA: the Association of International Educators. This in a period when the total number of international students worldwide has more than doubled—and, in Australia, nearly tripled. A quarter of the students in Australian universities now are from abroad, compared to 5 percent in the United States.

“Even if a minority of them stay, that’s still a lot of people,” said Sherrell, the Migration Council policy advisor.

They’re drawn by a comparatively simple visa process, are allowed to work part time, and can stay for up to 18 months after graduating with bachelor’s degrees and four years after completing graduate programs — even longer on a 457 visa — a period during which many get jobs or serve in internships that lead to employer sponsorship and permanent residency.

“These programs are among the most friendly to students in the entire world,” Sherrell said.

That’s what appealed to Yen-Hsuan Huang, whose family runs an import-export company in Taiwan, and who has come to Sydney to get a master’s degree in international business from the University of New South Wales. “Maybe the United States government has other considerations, but we are just individuals. So of course we go to countries that are more welcoming,” Huang said. “Of course we want to go to friendly countries.”

Foreign students at U.S. universities aren’t allowed to work, and most have to leave after graduating. One of the few ways they can stay? By playing the long odds of winning an H-1B visa.

Related: As study abroad becomes more crucial, few low-income students go

“It’s utterly insane that after they spend four years getting a Ph.D. in the United States, we ship them home because they can’t get the proper permission,” said Benjamin Powell, an economist, director of the Free Market Institute at the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University and author of The Economics of Immigration. “We’re depriving ourselves of the skills of people who have been educated here who can contribute to our society.”

Other countries, NAFSA said in a report — it’s subtitled Adjusting to What Happened in the World While We Were Making Other Plans — “have seized on this weakness to lure people to their knowledge-based economies.” Canada runs ads in the United States aimed at skilled workers stuck in immigration limbo, the report said, while Indian and Chinese engineers and scientists take their American educations with them back to their home countries. “This is producing a phenomenon that is virtually unrecognized in the United States,” NAFSA warned: “the outflow of talent from this country back to its countries of origin or to other, more welcoming, countries.”

One of the reasons this is allowed to happen, said Vic Johnson, senior advisor for public policy at NAFSA and the author of the report, is that most Americans don’t know it does.

“We’re not doing as well in this competition as we could, but part of that is because we’re not aware we’re in it,” Johnson said. “We as a country really have not made the decision that some countries have that we want to focus our immigration on the specific issue of attracting skilled immigration. We will get there where we realize that we’re no less dependent on the talent in the world than everybody else is.”

Until then, however, said Halataei, of the information technology group, people with skills in needed fields including science, technology, engineering, and math — the so-called STEM fields — may go to other places than America.

“Other countries are reaping the short-terms economic gains and the long-term benefits of developing their own STEM economies,” he said. “We’re going to wake up one day and find that people won’t need to come here any more.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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