Some Additional Thoughts about Those Iranian Students in the U.S.

By David North on January 6, 2020

Here are some thoughts about Iranian students in the United States, to supplement those of my colleague Dan Cadman.

  • Two different studies show that Iranians, once they get to the United States, are more likely to stay here than other, comparable foreign-born populations; and
  • The large majority of the grad students from that country I encountered several years ago managed to secure 100-percent funding from the university, and did not rely, as so many grad students do, on summer jobs in industry (because of existing sanctions against such employment).

The two subpopulations of Iranians in the United States I am thinking about both have had a considerable and positive exposure to life in the United States. One consists of those with U.S. PhDs granted five years earlier, and the other of people who became citizens and worked in Social-Security-covered jobs for at least 10 years. People in both groups have much higher "stay rates" than all other comparable foreign-born populations.

This is not to say that some of the foreign students now in this country may not be a security threat, a possibility that worried Dan Cadman, but it does suggest that one way for someone who is hostile to the regime to leave, and to stay out, is via an admission to a U.S. university.

Until a few years ago Michael Finn, at Oak Ridge Laboratories, conducted an annual survey of foreign-born PhDs in the United States. He obtained the Social Security numbers of all of them as they got their doctorates and then, in later years, matched those SSNs with the work records of the Social Security Administration; in this way he could tell who stayed and who left the United States. It was a great, continuing study but came to an end when some foolish privacy concerns killed it.

Finn's 2014 study, for example, showed, regarding recipients of doctorates in 2006, that 92 percent of those from Iran were still here five years later. No other nation had as many as 86 percent in this category.

Foreign-born people who have become naturalized, may, like other citizens, collect their Social Security benefits while living abroad. In 2017, there were 659,454 such overseas recipients; of them, four — only four — were born in Iran, as we reported earlier.

Insights at One University. Until a few years ago, every spring at income tax time I worked as a volunteer helping grad students — usually foreign ones — with their income tax returns. This was done at the University of Maryland at College Park. I became intrigued with the ones from Iran, and managed to have all from that country sent to me, so I talked with a score or so of them every year for many years running. Not a scientific sample, but interesting.

I soon learned that they did not want to talk about their feelings about their home country, but I picked up some other information as a by-product of the 1040 assistance. Most were in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math; most were PhD students, rather than seeking master's degrees, which meant that they were university-supported, often 100 percent, and not family-supported, as was often the case at the master's level.

In my later years at College Park I asked quite specifically how their summers were supported. Virtually none of them reported having summer jobs in industry, unlike their peers; this was the case because of federal sanctions against such employment. A minority of wealthier ones returned to Iran for the summer, but the majority stayed on campus for the summer, working for the university.

Since the two countries were at odds even then, if Iranians wanted to come to the States as students, they had to fly to Dubai to get a visa, with that airline ticket (to visit the embassy) being a barrier experienced by few of the other international students.

I remember at the time wondering why the United States was training so many Iranians in high tech fields at the university level, and thus to a large extent, at federal expense. Maybe the university officials knew about the "stay" rates.