The September 27 death of Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, William Safire, brought tears to throngs of readers who shared his passion for the English language (even as many disagreed with his politics). The passing on July 29 of Walter Cronkite, news anchor extraordinaire, America’s most trusted person, evoked sadness among those who wistfully recalled an era when newscasters reported the day’s events with fidelity and humility — unlike the current crop who mostly ply their trade by sensationalizing reality and pumping their own celebrity. The August 25 demise of Sen. Ted Kennedy, Lion of the Senate, probably brought an end to any semblance of true bipartisanship in the halls of our contentious Congress.

Sadness and nostalgia aside, their deaths got me to thinking about a hard-to-justify policy of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that has troubled me since it was announced last year. The policy in question is the Faustian, nay Machiavellian, trade-off of an extra 17 months of work permission granted to foreign students in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, as long as their respective employers enroll “voluntarily” in E-Verify, the online database that confirms or denies the employment authorization of newly hired workers.

The 17-more-months rule has bothered me, first, because there is no logical connection between the E-Verify program and the grant of extra months of “optional practical training”(OPT) to STEM graduates, over and above the standard one year of OPT that all foreign students who graduate receive. It’s pure political horsetrading and handicapping — nothing more.

More disturbing, however, is the unstated notion that STEM students are somehow more important and valuable to the nation than students in the liberal arts. From where I stand, immigration bureaucrats are no more prescient prognosticators than the commissars of the old Soviet Union who tried but more often failed to guess correctly in attempting to grow their government-planned economy. Like the Russian apparatchiks of old, the USCIS and ICE have no special expertise in picking winners and rejecting losers. Their actions in authorizing the STEM/OPT/E-Verify exchange beg a fundamental question (posed in the New York Times Magazine by historian Diane Ravitch):

Why do we educate? We educate because we want citizens who are capable of taking responsibility for their lives and for our democracy. We want citizens who understand how their government works, who are knowledgeable about the history of their nation and other nations. We need citizens who are thoroughly educated in science. We need people who can communicate in other languages. We must ensure that every young person has the chance to engage in the arts. But because of our narrow-minded utilitarianism, we have forgotten what good education is.

Imagine that young Billy Safire, Wally Cronkite and Teddy Kennedy had all been born abroad but pursued a liberal arts education as foreign students in the United States. Imagine further that each had all the human potential and talent that their actual lives later manifested. Would we have wanted the old INS, or do we want today’s USCIS and ICE, deciding for U.S. employers and graduating foreign students which fields of study are more worthy? Not then, not now, not ever. Give all foreign students an extra 17 months of work authorization and let each blossom uniquely for the ultimate betterment of America.