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  • International students contribute more than $41 billion to the U.S. economy.
  • In recent months, international students have been under relentless attacks by the Trump administration, including last week’s proposed rule targeting students from 59 countries.
  • Voters have a chance to make a choice that would strengthen America’s workforce and global economic competitiveness, while promoting a long-term strategy to keep talent in America.
  • Taif Jany is a policy entrepreneur on immigration at Next100.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

It’s been 12 years since I arrived in the United States as an international student. The move was my ticket to escape after 16 years of living under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, surviving the devastation of the 2003 war, and being a refugee in Damascus, Syria. 

At that time, nothing mattered to me more than going to college. It was the only path I had, as a young Iraqi man, to build a better future for myself and my family. After spending many sleepless nights studying English and anxiously waiting for my Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam results, my dream had come true: I received my acceptance letter from Union College in upstate New York.

While I can’t vote in this election, I want to tell those of you who can: not only are the dreams and livelihoods of people like me on the ballot in 2020, but so is the economic global competitiveness of the United States.

Students from outside the US are being pushed away

Over the years, international students like myself have understood the immense benefits we were receiving from pursuing a US college education. In turn, we have contributed our talents, global perspectives, and diversity to benefit educational institutions and communities across the US. 

International students contributed more than $41 billion to the US economy from 2018 to 2019. We Improve educational quality and cultural diversity, and alleviate talent gaps in America’s workforce. 

And yet, despite these contributions, international students have been mostly alienated and neglected by outdated US immigration policies. These policies are sadly designed to waste their talent, rather than retain it. 

The majority of my fellow international students were forced to leave the United States after graduation because they were not given the opportunity to work and contribute their skills to benefit the country that had trained them. Under this administration, the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric, excruciating visa processing times, and the lack of job opportunities after graduation have forced international students to look to other countries. 

In addition, the administration attempted to remove all foreign students in the US due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When that didn’t work, the administration then banned all international students from coming to the United States to enroll in colleges and universities that are operating virtually during the Fall 2020 semester. And most recently, the Department of Homeland Security issued a nonsensical rule that curtails how long foreign students can study in the US. The proposed rule could prevent some international students, mostly from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries, from receiving a four-year degree. No wonder the enrollment of new international students in the US is projected to decline by 63% to 98% during the 2020-2021 academic year, reaching the lowest level since the end of World War II.

International students are an economic force

The question the United States should be asking itself is not about whether international students benefit the country. They do. The question is, how do we bring them back? 

One way to start would be for policymakers to implement programs and policies that reflect a proactive vision of an America that welcomes and embraces international students. 

The Keeping Talent in America Act — my proposal to re-attract, retain, and provide a pathway to the workforce for international students —  would do just that. The proposal would create a new and clearer pathway for foreign students to invest their skills and talents into our workforce, while filling critical talent gaps, enhancing our communities, and strengthening our economic competitiveness among the international community. 

Countries such as Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and China are all realizing the tremendous value of international students and are creating a variety of programs and policies to ensure that they attract and retain this talent. The USshould be leading the way; instead, we are ceding a critical source of strength. Voters have a chance to change that.

Every year, I celebrate the anniversary of my arrival in the United States. My personal experience living under a dictatorship, economic sanctions, wars, and displacement has made me cherish every single moment I have spent in this country, where I have come to deeply understand America’s core values of democracy, freedom, and diversity. I used what I learned at Union College to pursue a fulfilling career where I can improve the lives of others like me. None of that would have happened had I not come here as an international student. 

The United States needs international students to strengthen our communities and our workforce. It’s time we give them a path to do so. Let’s make that clear at the ballot box this November.

Taif Jany is a policy entrepreneur at Next100, a startup think tank for and by the next generation of policy leaders.