By Isaac Gwin. On paper, 26-year-old Kourosh Maleki is the type of job prospect that big oil companies in the U.S. are eager to hire. He has already gained valuable experience working as a petroleum engineer and is scheduled to graduate from the University of Kansas in 2015 after conducting doctoral level research into how to extract oil from older wells.
The problem is that unless federal law changes, neither Maleki, an Iranian, nor the other 184 international students currently in KU’s graduate engineering programs, including his wife Shilan, are likely to be allowed to stay in the U.S. This is due to a cap on work visas that is so low that the yearly application quota is reached within days, leaving no choice for these highly trained workers but to return to their home countries.
“Maleki’s skills are particularly desirable,” said Jenn-Tai Liang, a petroleum engineering professor and chair of Maleki’s Ph.D. committee. “At the moment, there is a lack of American graduate engineering students coming out of universities largely because undergrads can get such high paying jobs right out of university without having to go to the extra effort. Qualified international students are needed then to fill that void.”
A recent study conducted by the Partnership for a New Economy, a coalition of business leaders and mayors interested in promoting immigration reform, shows the U.S. will experience a lack of more than 230,000 workers with advanced STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degrees by 2018. Many American politicians, heads of business and leaders of higher education have recognized the need to keep highly skilled individuals in the U.S. and are rallying behind legislation that could make that happen. Both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney support increasing visas for skilled workers.
The Legislation

Startup Act 2.0, a bill introduced in Congress by four Democrats and Republicans including GOP Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, would allow 50,000 foreign graduate students who earn degrees from a U.S. university to stay in the country for five years, provided they work in a STEM field. After that, they would be granted permanent residence and have the option to naturalize.
The bill cites data from the Kansas City, Mo.-based Kauffman Foundation, which shows that from 1995 to 2005 immigrants founded 25 percent of engineering and technology firms in the U.S. and that each of these entrepreneurs have the potential to create, on average, up to five domestic jobs every four years.
“These are talented, highly skilled workers who not only may want to start a business themselves, but they are going to help other young businesses in the United States grow,” said Moran staffer Jason Wiens. “And if an American company can’t find workers here in our country to do the job that they have, then they are going to increasingly look to take their business elsewhere.”
A Need For STEM Students
This economic reality prompted college presidents and chancellors, including KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, to send a letter to President Obama and members of Congress in June in support of the visa measure.
“We welcome more than 2,000 talented international students to KU each year,” the chancellor wrote in an email explaining her decision to support the letter. “But after graduation, many aren’t able to receive the visas they need to stay in the United States to work and contribute to our economy. What university presidents from around the nation are suggesting is that we make it possible for more international students to live and work in the United States legally. We know they’re talented, and we know there are a range of fields where businesses and communities are looking to hire.”
One of those is Perceptive Software, headquartered in Shawnee, Kan.
“We definitely want the best and the brightest,” said Jeremy McNeive, a spokesperson for the business software company. “We are constantly looking to recruit capable workers from Kansas universities like KU. Whether or not they are foreign, we require people who can do the work.”
A Desire For Citizenship

Once they graduate, Maleki and his wife would like to stay and work in the U.S. oil industry and eventually become U.S. citizens. They are grateful to have the cost of their studies paid for by KU and they feel they will not only have a lot to offer to their employer but perhaps can make an even larger difference.
“If I was able to become a high ranking person in an American oil company, and I have become an American-Iranian, then I can go to Iran and handle the contracts with those companies that I already have connections with and it would benefit both sides,” Maleki said. “In this way I could never support a war between Iran and the U.S. because I have a connection to both countries. America is providing me with a good way of life, but at the same time my family and background is in Iran, so I’m trying to bring peace to these great nations.”
Contact Isaac Gwin at