Irrational Immigration

06/17/2013 11:34 am ET | Updated Aug 17, 2013

US citizens don't speak German today because during the Second World War the center of science dramatically shifted from Europe (especially Germany) to the United States. Over 30 percent of the more than 300 Nobel Prize winners working in the United States have been foreign born. There are considerably more foreign-born US Nobel Prize winners than the next closest country's total winners. The US is peerless in attracting and developing scientists and funding basic science and technology research. The United States is the Club Med for scientists around the world. Between 1950 and 1980, the US won 117 Nobel Prizes while Germany, a distant number two, won only 16. In short, the top minds in the world have found a home in the US.

But our scientific dominance is in peril. Some immigration officials treat top foreign-born scientists as though they might be terrorists, and with an unfortunate result: the US is now losing top scientists to other countries and may, as a consequence, lose its kick ass scientific edge. But, to be clear, this is not a competition for bragging rights. Foreign-born scientists create jobs (five on average for every foreign-born scientist), develop new and exciting patents (about 25 percent of US patents are granted to immigrants), and create startup companies (again, roughly 25 percent of recent technology startups). Visa-denials to foreign-born scientists constitute a huge cost to the US economy.

Since a chief concern of the opposition is cost (the typically exaggerated claim is that most immigrants are low-skilled workers who will suck up billions in public benefits dollars, such as Medicaid and food stamps), appreciating the financial benefits of highly trained workers is crucial.

The difficulties are compounded because it is not possible for the US to replace lost scientists with US-born scientists. Our replacement efforts are pitiful--just as Italy's birth rate is far outpaced by its death rate, so, too, the education rate for US scientists is far outpaced by our projected needs. Poor education (the World Economic Forum ranks the US number 48 in quality of math and science education) combined with diminishing interest in the sciences and technology (the US ranks 27th out of 29 wealthy countries in the proportion of college students earning degrees in math or science) suggest a dismal future for the US dominance in science and technology. We cannot hope to maintain our scientific dominance and the economic benefits that secures by relying on US-born scientists.

Our only hope for maintaining our scientific edge, tops in the world and financially lucrative, is to encourage top foreign-born scientists to live and work in the US.

Virtually every non-ostrich agrees that immigration reform, which is vital to our country's future, must expand the number of visas available for highly skilled scientists, engineers, and technologists. And that is what the current bill proposes to do.

But expanding the number of visas won't address current systemic problems in granting visas to non-US-born scientists. The primary problem, one which the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is keenly aware of, is that some immigration officers (known only by number) are subjective and arbitrary in their denial of immigrant petitions to persons of "extraordinary ability."

When persons of extraordinary or exceptional ability, or outstanding professors and researchers, apply for permanent resident status with USCIS, their application is, based on where the applicant lives or works, sent to one of two locations for processing--Nebraska or Texas. Herein lies the problem: an applicant is considerably more likely to have their petition denied if they go through the Nebraska office than if they go through the Texas office. The relevant figures are no statistical fluke. For example, in 2011, an applicant was 75 percent more likely to be denied by the Nebraska office than by the Texas office. In the best of the five years studied, an applicant was 30 percent more likely to be denied by the Nebraska office than by the Texas office.

These disturbing figures, along with the chilling effect that a denial can have on the human psyche, have encouraged a host of world-class scientists to take up residence in another country. China, for example, is pouring huge amounts of money into attracting its top scientists home.

Consider just one of the countless examples. Let us call the scientist requesting US permanent residency, Einstein. Einstein, a young and rising star, was the author of eight prominent scientific publications and was the first-listed author on five of them (since scientific research can involve many, many participants, the order of participants is indicative of the order of importance of the contribution). One way of assessing the originality and importance of scientific research is to determine how many times other scientists (people who are best trained to recognize excellence in their own field) cite the author in their publications. Einstein's papers were cited well over 300 times--an extraordinary figure. His papers made such lists as "Top 20 Most-Cited," "Hot Paper," and "Top 20 Hottest Articles" (making his papers sound more like members of the Kardashian family than scientific research). Finally, he was employed by a major US corporation, one that was eager to secure his long-term employment (to maintain its competitive edge).

Einstein's work was vetted by an officer of the Nebraska division of the USCIS, let us call him "Officer 19." Officer 19 denied the petition, claiming that there was "absolutely no evidence that Einstein's work had had a major influence." Officer 19, who may only have a high-school education, deemed himself in a better position to judge Einstein's qualifications than the more than 300 scientists who thought his work merited their consideration. Einstein's attorneys could have filed an appeal within thirty days but their appeal would have been addressed by, you guessed it, Officer 19. Appeals, then, are seldom filed and, when filed, routinely denied.

Attorneys have assured me that Einstein's petition would very likely have been approved if he had gone through the Texas office. Einstein, both discouraged and angered, found gainful employment in his home country and is now competing with the US.

Immigration of persons of extraordinary or exceptional ability is absolutely crucial for the US to maintain its scientific and economic edge. But immigration reform alone cannot address the systemic abuses exemplified in the Nebraska office.