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Gary Shapiro

Gary Shapiro

Posted May 4, 2009 | 10:23 AM (EST)

American Brain Drain: Why We Need H1B Visa Immigration Reform



America's immigration system is broken. While most focus on illegal immigration or changing ethnicities of legal immigration, what concerns me is that we are losing our historic ability to attract and retain the word's brightest and most entrepreneurial workers.

Silicon Valley exemplifies an American success story threatened by a shift in how we treat the type of bright foreign-born technologists and entrepreneurs who help make us great. These engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs build companies that create jobs and wealth in the United States. Of the 163,000 applications for H1B visas received last year, the law allows for just 65,000 approvals picked through a lottery system. H1B visas allow foreign workers in specialty occupations to work in the United States.

The New York Times recently profiled a young engineer for Google, Sanjay G. Mavinkurve, an Indian-born, American-educated entrepreneur who helped write the code for a website that would become Facebook. But now, Mr. Mavinkurve, who once proudly displayed an American flag in his college dorm room, must work in Canada because visa rules make it impracticable to move his wife and family to the United States.

The Times stated it well: "His case highlights the technology industry's argument that the United States will struggle to compete if it cannot more easily hire foreign-born engineers."

The economic crisis has led many Americans, including some lawmakers, to turn inward, preferring what they perceive as a safe path of protectionism to global competition. To them, immigrants take jobs away from more deserving Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To restore our economy, we need to do everything we can as a nation to attract the best and the brightest to come to the United States. Innovative immigrants have always been - and will continue to be - central to America's growth, job creation and global competitiveness.

Immigrants to our country founded more than half of all Silicon Valley start-ups created in the past decade, according to Duke University researcher Vivek Wadhwa. Half of all Silicon Valley engineers are foreign born, up from 10 percent in 1970, and about 40 percent of all U.S. patents go to immigrants. These immigrant-founded companies employed 450,000 workers and generated $52 billion in revenue in 2005.

A recent Kauffman Foundation study, led by Wadhwa, found that America is experiencing a brain drain of talented foreign-born entrepreneurs, many of whom after graduating from a U.S. university return to their home countries owing to challenges receiving a H1B visa. Most entrepreneurs surveyed said their home countries offered better opportunities to start their own businesses.

Losing this level of talent weakens one of America's greatest competitive advantages. America is the most innovative, creative and entrepreneurial country on earth because we've historically attracted the best and the brightest thinkers from around the world. In the technology industry, some of our greatest companies - including Yahoo, Google, Sun, Intel, Audiovox, Qualcomm, and eBay - were founded and led by immigrants whose successful companies today employ hundreds of thousands of Americans.

During the tech boom, Congress did temporarily amend the H1B visa laws to allow U.S. companies to sponsor more foreign workers - 115,000 workers in 1999 and 195,000 in 2001, but regrettably, they did not continue on this path. Instead, they reverted back to the all-too-low 65,000 quota, with an additional 20,000 for foreign nationals holding a master's degree or higher, first set in 1990. That number indicates the government is out of touch with the skilled workers required to maintain America's innovation economy.

The H1B visa debate should not be guided by the number of applications received in any one year. Given to the changes in the economy, some years will see huge spikes and other years will see valleys. We instead need to be focused on long-range policy decisions to attract the best and the brightest to work and create wealth in America over a period of their entire careers.

President Obama has signaled he wants America to be a destination for businesses, capital investment and workers, and updating the H1B visa plan is an important step in fulfilling that vision. I am hopeful that his administration, and Congress, reverses course with the current H1B visa laws to allow more talented immigrants, and their families, into the United States to work for American companies rather than forcing them to locate their businesses elsewhere in the world.

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.