Category Archives: Students

Finding Common Ground on Immigration Reform

Blog post by Caitlin Connolly, Emily Laser, and Elena Weissmann, MPP 2014, in participation with Prof. Converse’s Negotiations Class.

Current Situation: Gridlock, Stalemate, and Priorities

Immigration policy and the gridlock immobilizing its reform is a contentious problem facing the United States. Making progress on this issue quickly and effectively is in the United States’ best interest because the current situation is politically and financially unsustainable. While not everyone can agree on the solution, citizens and policymakers agree there is a problem with our current immigration system.  Republicans are concerned about security risks, legality, and American job stability. Democrats are more concerned with maintaining inclusiveness and the “American Dream” through rhetoric and policy. Given these highly distinctive goals and the deeply held values they represent, policymakers must reframe the debate. Moving away from zero-sum partisan rhetoric is necessary to agree on mutually beneficial solutions and make progress on the immigration issue.

Current U.S. immigration policy prioritizes the following: family based immigration (allowing 480,000 visas per year), employment-based immigration (allowing 140,000 visas per year), refugee and asylees (allowing 70,000 visas per year), and diversity (allowing 55,000 visas for randomly selected people from low-immigration countries).  With over 11 million illegal immigrants presently residing in the U.S. due to restrictions on their legal entry, these minimal caps are not meeting the demand of potential immigrants.  In addition, the U.S. has prioritized family ties over other potentially beneficial categories such as skilled workers who could boost the U.S. economy by taking unfilled jobs and increasing GDP.  If policymakers were to pass comprehensive immigration reform, GDP would increase by $1.4 trillion, total American income would increase by $791 billion, and would add $184 billion in state and federal taxes.

So far the immigration debate has centered around illegal immigration and border security, and has made no progress towards significant reform in the past two administrations.

For decades, members of Congress have considered various reforms to the immigration system, with even the most promising legislation failing due to partisan gridlock. But money talks. The U.S. spends more on the immigration system than on all other forms of federal law enforcement combined, and both sides agree that reform is necessary, if for no reason other than this enormous cost. However, Republicans and Democrats are stuck in a battle of morals and ideologies with no compromise in sight. Reframing reform to focus on economic development and an increase in jobs can transcend these deeply embedded beliefs and appeal to both sides.


Perspectives and Biases as Roadblocks  

For any policy change to be successful, policymakers must agree that the benefits outweigh the losses. However, the human tendency to consider losses more than potential gains biases policymakers away from agreements that could be mutually beneficial. Furthermore, policymakers and citizens shrink from new policy proposals (that inherently carry a risk because they are new) because omission is more blameless than action. For example, even if altering border security policies could bring enormous economic gain to the U.S., supporting any policy change is difficult because we place more emphasis on the risk of action than the risk of inaction (maintaining current border security policies). This is known as thestatus quo bias.

With the Democrats’ focus on citizenship and Republicans’ focus on security, the two parties often talk past one another. Partisan polarization creates gridlock in the policy process because differing opinions lead to competitive stand-offs that foster the perception of a win-lose set of outcomes – we “get” immigration reform or we “don’t.”  Because of the cognitive tendency to identify with one’s group, the partisan polarization barrier creates a conflict between advancing the goals of the group (which merges with self-interest) and goals for the public (which often differ from the goals of a more restrictive group). In the decision-making process, partisan parties and leadership frown upon bipartisan compromise, and conciliatory efforts are rarely successful because policymakers want to maintain their in-group status and bolster their own party.

Policymakers also apply their cognitive biases to immigrants themselves in addition to their partisan counterparts. Due to the fundamental attribution error, policymakers ascribe immigration problems to the preferences and interests of immigrants themselves (and therefore not necessitating a policy change to solve them). Liberals tend to see illegal immigrants as relatively helpless, uneducated individuals who need policymakers to decide where their best interests lie. Conservatives tend to see illegal immigrants as minimally skilled workers, and as lawbreakers who have made decisions that negatively impact the U.S.

However, neither of these views accurately characterize the immigrant population. In reality, immigrants’ decisions are constrained by financial, social, and legal hurdles that limit their opportunities and burden the American economy. Employers and industries outside of low-wage agricultural labor markets are increasingly realizing that they can capitalize on the skill sets of immigrants, but are often unable to do so because of legal barriers. Immigrants with high skill sets are either immigrating illegally and occupying low-skill positions, or foregoing immigration altogether due to stringent and expensive immigration laws. The American government loses out on income taxes, and American businesses lose out on skilled, inexpensive laborers because of this pattern.  All of the above biases impact the immigration debate, and are the reasons we have not seen immigration reform on a federal level yet.


The Problem — Something We Can All Agree On

The current cap of 65,000 skilled worker visas is not enough to meet U.S. businesses’ demand, especially in STEM fields with high demand. Less than one month after the 2011 visa applications opened, all available visa spots were filled, demonstrating the high supply for skilled workers seeking immigration and the lack of U.S. capacity to absorb them. Leadership from American STEM giants like Facebook and Caterpillar have advocated for reform because it can help their industries and in turn the American economy. Instead, the U.S. faces a reverse brain drain while other countries benefit from these workers because they can more easily obtain residency and contribute to their economy, at the expense of the U.S.

But all of this can change.

Since a discussion centered on jobs connotes a fixed pie as employment is not unlimited, we should frame the immigration policy debate in terms of economic development and increasing the number of jobs in the U.S. For example, bothgovernment andmedia sources agree that there is a shortage of inexpensive STEM laborers. There is acurrent push among the technology industry for immigration reform to reverse this trend and keep this industry competitive on a global scale. Using a data-driven and statistical approach to immigration reform can counter the status quo bias by demonstrating how inaction will be detrimental in objective financial and economic terms.

We recommend policymakers increase the number of available visas for skilled workers entering the US, and relax the requirements for businesses to hire skilled and legal immigrants making it easier for them to obtain needed workers.


Strategic Solution and Overcoming Obstacles

Policymakers should frame the debate as improving on what already exists so that they overcome the status quo bias.  If the public and policymakers see changes as a gain, rather than a loss, it may be easier for policymakers to gather supporters both in Congress and in the public.  By discussing the impact on the U.S. economy of allowing more skilled workers into the country as one of “potential increases in GDP,” or “attracting more businesses” then there will be few losses associated with reform – and more gains.  Increasing the H1-B visa cap from 60,000 and the master’s exception cap from 20,000 to 120,000 and 40,000 respectively would allow for such beneficial gains.  This would also address the dire need for more STEM workers: the STEM workforce grew 15 times faster than the U.S. population, and 4 times faster than the U.S. workforce since 1950.  In addition, the U.S. educates a significant amount of the world’s STEM workers, pouring our own resources into foreign students’ education, while only 33% of STEM graduate students have temporary visas to remain in the U.S. and bolster our economy using the skills they learned here in our universities.  Instead of the status quo, where we are spending our resources on foreigners who then take their skills elsewhere, the U.S. can and should allow many of these students to stay in the U.S. to benefit our economy, businesses and encourage economic development. Both Democrats and Republicans could get behind such an economically boosting plan because it is framed around gains, and addresses a problem both sides agree with.

The partisan ingroup bias polarizing the decision-making process is fueled by each political party, which both focus on issues the other party considers to be of lesser importance than their key issue. By reframing the immigration reform debate in terms of economic competitiveness and business development, we can shift the conversation away from non-overlapping divisive issues and appeal to policymakers on each side of the aisle. Our proposal will encourage Congress to addresses both Republican and Democrat concerns about immigration while avoiding divisive issues that encourage a “win-lose” mindset. Facilitating the contributions of skilled workers through visa cap increases and hiring allowances speaks to the Republicans’ job security concern and to the Democrats’ fairness and American Dream concern.

To overcome the fundamental attribution error that has biased lawmakers’ views surrounding immigrants and reform, the bill we propose will frame immigration in a way that highlights the potential to attract skilled and educated workers to the U.S. As previously mentioned, policymakers tend to view immigrants as a static group, a viewpoint that allows them to more easily make arguments about their collective welfare or blame them for the problems we have. To steer the debate in a direction that better represents the immigrant community, the bill should focus on making it easier for skilled workers to get a visa and for businesses to hire them. This tactic also shifts the debate focus to economic growth and how it can be achieved through immigration policy reform.

To finally make progress on immigration reform, Congress should propose a bill that addresses STEM visa reform because it addresses concerns that both sides have about our immigration system, it can be seen as a gain rather than a loss, it abolishes the win-lose rhetoric, and it will allow immigrants that can benefit the U.S. to come and bolster our economy.  Such a small yet beneficial step may pave the way for future reforms and alter the debate to something more amenable to reform.

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Religion and Foreign Policy Course Visits State Department Bureau

Post by Taylor Brown, MPP 2014

Last week, a group of students in Professor Peter Ochs’ Religion and Foreign Policy Making Course visited Washington to meet with officials at the Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO). Along with fellow students from the College of Arts and Sciences, Elena Weissman, your Batten Blog host, and Taylor Brown, long-time reader, first-time contributor, were there to discuss the Department’s new work promoting US government engagement with religious communities abroad. From Burma to Libya, CSO has been leading these efforts, working with the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, training foreign service officers for appropriate cultural exchanges, and reducing outbursts of sectarian conflict in unstable states around the world. While there, Weissman and Brown had the opportunity to talk with Deputy Assistant Secretary (and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) Jerry White who leads CSO’s partnerships, learning, and training offices. White spoke brilliantly on the tools for policy engagement and the future of CSO’s work with religious communities.



Elena Weissmann and Taylor Brown, both MPP 2014 accelerated students, visited the Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO).

From Foggy Bottom, the class then traveled to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to meet with officials from the International Peace and Security Institute (IPSI) along with other MPP and foreign policy students. Professor Ochs and the individuals from IPSI have been working with the Department of State to develop training for engaging foreign religious communities, and Weissman and Brown got to be the guinea pigs. This work, now in its first stages of implementation, will soon be reaching hundreds of foreign service officers as they prepare to enter the field. Following the IPSI presentation, the class sat down for a frank chat with UVA alum and CSO officer Abbie Bellows on opportunities for future work at the Department of State. It was a full but rewarding day.

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Batten Ballers Gear Up for Beach Volleyball Playoffs

The Batten Ballers braved cold sands tonight, securing a victory over competitor “Notorious D.I.G.” The team had apparently heard about the Ballers’ dexterity and dedication, and opted to forfeit rather than lose face. The Ballers engaged in a scrimmage with another team facing a forfeit competition, and had a great time despite the weather. 


Keanen “Keen Eye” McGonigle, Graham “Cracker” Egan, Kanchana “The Foot” Sthanumurthy, and Elena “I was Just Trying to Help” Weissmann had a great showing this evening. The team learned a lot about generosity (by letting the other team score some points), commitment (by diving for hard-to-reach spikes), and public policy (by discussing outcomes matrices throughout the game). 

Keanen and Graham were an excellent duo in the spiking department, while Kanchana brought some originality to the court through her creative use of feet, knees, and wit. Elena engaged the other team in competitive yet friendly banter, sometimes distracting their captain. Graham’s digs rivaled Keanen’s blocks, and the team really came together as a single unit. 

Playoff schedules will be announced shortly. Go Batten Ballers!

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Batten Council Hosts BINGO Marathon at Golden LivingCenter

Last Friday, three Batten students put on their party hats and hosted a two-hour BINGO Bonanza Marathon at the nearby Golden LivingCenter

Dozens of residents enjoyed the emcee abilities of Alex Wallace, Elena Weissmann, and Elizabeth Vranas — members of the first and second year Accelerated MPP cohorts. 

After conducting an in-depth policy analysis about which types of BINGO would yield the highest returns for all stakeholders, the hosts decided to engage the residents in a variety of BINGO games. We played traditional BINGO, blackout BINGO, and even the rare form of four-corners BINGO. An outcomes matrix is available upon request.

Many residents went home with the coveted dollar bill prizes, with at least one promising to buy a McDonald’s milkshake with her earnings. 

Batten Council enjoys a positive working relationship with Golden LivingCenter, and will be back again sometime soon for another high-stakes BINGO Bonanza. Thanks to our volunteers and community partners! 


First-year Accelerated MPP student Elizabeth Vranas calls out the BINGO numbers in a suspenseful game of Blackout BINGO. 


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Formative Change Group

By Shannon Joyce

This year, one of my most rewarding experiences has been working with FCG Consulting.   As a non-profit consulting club, FCG gives student analysts the opportunity to take what we learn in the classroom and use those skills to benefit socially minded organizations in Charlottesville.  Our projects are designed to help our clients increase their overall capacity, so it’s been a great opportunity for me to give back to the community in a meaningful way.  It’s also been an excellent opportunity for us student analysts to build our resumes with client-facing skills and specific deliverables that we can point to as our consulting accomplishments!

Now that FCG has finished its first project cycle of the year, I wanted to share with everyone what we’ve been able to do for our clients.

A team of student analysts worked with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville to tailor a financial education program to better serve the needs of the Southwood community. Habitat for Humanity has been working in the Southwood Mobile Home Park since 2007, and it offers a number of educational and community enrichment classes as a part of their comprehensive approach to confronting poverty. FCG took the “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-by World curriculum and adapted it to fit the specific environment of the Southwood community, allowing Habitat to better leverage this resource in accomplishing its mission.

FCG analysts also worked with Madison House, the UVA institution that coordinates and encourages student volunteerism.   Madison House performed its very first survey measuring the impact of its programs throughout Charlottesville, and FCG took this raw data and turned it into meaningful information that Madison House can use to evaluate priorities and establish best practices. Going forward, Madison House will be able to continually evaluate its year to year progress and decide what’s working and what needs to change in order for the organization to stay relevant to Charlottesville’s needs.

A team of analysts also worked with The Future Fund, a giving circle based out of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation.  Future Fund members pool their resources to give grants to worthy organizations, but the organization has faced declining membership in recent years.  Batten students worked to help the Future Fund develop a membership engagement survey, which they will be using as they move into a strategic planning process this year.

FCG team members also worked to refine client development processes as well as update the constitution to ensure better institutional memory and stronger transitions from cohort to cohort. Together these changes will ensure a stronger, more effective FCG that will continue to serve Batten and the Charlottesville community.

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Batten Builds: Habitat for Humanity

by Elena Weissmann, MPP 2014

On Friday, twelve Batten students braved the cold and joined Habitat for Humanity in their Project 20 initiative (to build 20 Habitat homes annually to address the affordable housing crisis in our community) at Belmont Cottages. 

Students from the post-grad, accelerated, and undergraduate cohorts came together to make some great headway on a series of three homes just 10 minutes from Grounds. The team, only slightly lured by the three dozen Bodos bagels waiting for them (and five types of cream cheese!), helped the Habitat crew counteract Charlottesville’s affordable housing crisis. Habitat’s partner families, who also contribute to the homes’ construction through what’s known as “sweat equity,” will soon be part of a mixed-use community in Belmont.


A series of mixed-income residences in Belmont Cottages, built as part of Habitat’s Project 20 initiative.

Over 700 families in Charlottesville remain on the waitlist for last-resort public housing. Hundreds of Charlottesville schoolchildren are considered “homeless.” Even among those with homes, 245 families are awaiting critical repairs, and close to 4,000 families spend over half their income on housing. (Habitat website) Our work with Habitat contributed to their goal of building on existing assets to give low-income families a chance to move out of substandard housing without remaining subject to the dramatic rise in the price of buildable lots in Albemarle County and Charlottesville. 

The Batten crew flexed their powertool muscles, using jigsaws and nail guns like they were calculators and outcomes matrices. Our work at the site ranged from picking up donations to the Habitat store to installing drywall in two full bedrooms. During the lunch break, our hands were caked with caulk, mud, and honey pecan cream cheese, but we didn’t let that get us down. We returned to our work in the afternoon invigorated and inspired by the sweat on the brows of the crawl space team. 


Jessica Rizzuto prepares rafters in a future bedroom to hang drywall sheets (hand-cut and installed by Batten students!)

At the end of the day, we were fatigued but felt accomplished at another successful Batten Builds project. 

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Batten Ballers Update: Week 1

The Batten Ballers are back in action this season, with teams on both the basketball and volleyball courts. 

The Ballers were offered a last-minute spot off the waitlist for basketball, and managed to make a strong showing despite on 30 minutes notice. The team had some great shots, blocks, and passes, and kept the game tied right until the end, when the Chi Alpha team scored a buzzer shot three-pointer to win the game. The team had a strong court presence, however ragtag the last-minute additions may have been (thanks to all those who happened to be in the AFC and joined our team!). 

On the volleyball court, the Ballers put up a solid fight against the Medical School team. One baller endured a hip burn from a heroic dig to receive a pass, an injury which was immediately diagnosed by the doctors in training on the other side of the net. Every team member improved by the end of the game, and we look forward to many more games with many more faces!

Our basketball team has a week off for the Superbowl, and all team members are encouraged to spend their free time bulking up by enjoying a protein-rich smoothie from the AFC. 

Hope to see many more Battenites out there next week! Volleyball games take place Tuesdays at 7:15, and basketball games resume next Sunday at 6:30.

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