Does America's immigration system make sense to anyone?
The recent influx of thousands of migrant children from Central America has highlighted the failure of reform efforts and gripped the nation's attention. This is a humanitarian crisis that must be resolved. But forgotten in the emotional debates over immigration are the more than one million legal, skilled immigrants who have been held hostage to political wrangling. Many of these doctors, scientists and engineers are getting fed up with being in immigration limbo and are leaving the country. They are in high demand wherever they go. The loser is the United States, because it is limiting its economic growth and creating its own competition.
When you visit the technology centers of countries such as Brazil, China and India, you see a beehive of startup activity. The entrepreneurs there are building not only social media and Internet apps like those that Silicon Valley develops, but also wearable medical devices, robots, drone-based delivery systems, microsatellites and agricultural-automation systems. And they are building self-driving cars, solar technologies and 3D-printing systems. A significant proportion of these entrepreneurs returned home from the United States, where American taxpayers likely subsidized their educations.
Visit the campuses of engineering colleges in the United States, and you'll find that a large proportion of the students are foreign-born. Ask these students what they expect to do when they graduate, and nearly all will say that they plan to complete a one- or two-year internship in the United States and then return home. When my research team at Duke, Harvard, and the University of California surveyed students in 2008, we learned that only 6 percent of Indian, 10 percent of Chinese and 15 percent of European students expected to make America their permanent home.
This is not how it used to be. Two decades ago, the norm was for foreign-born students to stay permanently in the United States after they graduated. Various studies documented stay rates of Ph.D.s being higher than 90 percent. There were few opportunities back home for these graduates, and it was easy to get a U.S. visa. This provided the United States with a big advantage and helped fuel its technology boom. From 1995 to 2005, 52 percent of Silicon Valley's startups had a foreign-born founder. The majority of these entrepreneurs came to the United States as students and ended up becoming Americans.
As the visa backlogs started rising, immigrant entrepreneurship began to stall. From 2006 to 2012, only 44 percent of Silicon Valley's startups were founded by immigrants. It wasn't that immigrants became less entrepreneurial or that graduating students didn't want to start technology companies; their visas did not allow them to work for the companies that they might have started. Many moved to countries like Chile, Singapore and Canada -- all of which rolled out the welcome mat. Chile offered $40,000 to entrepreneurs just to bootstrap their companies there for six months. Its entrepreneurship system became so vibrant that The Economist dubbed it "Chilecon Valley."
Skilled immigrants are more important to the United States than ever, because it is on the verge of a major reinvention. Its scientists and entrepreneurs are setting the wheels in motion to solve humanity's grand challenges -- in areas such as health, energy, food, education and water. Advances in fields such as computing, sensors, medicine, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and robotics are making this possible. Foreign-born engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs are helping lead the charge in all of these areas.
The cost of these technologies has, however, dropped exponentially, and anyone anywhere can build a world-changing innovation. And, as returnees to other countries are learning, it doesn't have to occur in the United States. They can achieve the same success back home where they are with their friends and family and are not made to feel unwelcome. America is losing its near- monopoly on technological innovation.
Both sides of the political spectrum realize the importance of skilled immigrants, and there is little to debate. Legislation such as the Startup Visa Act -- which allows foreigners to bring their ideas, technologies and funding to the United States and create local jobs -- will face little opposition. Providing permanent-resident visas to science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates will also gain broad support. And who doesn't want more experienced doctors and scientists coming to the United States? The Startup Visa alone would create as many as 1.6 million jobs and boost the country's annual GDP by 1.6 percent within 10 years, according to a Kauffman Foundation estimate.
But skilled-immigration legislation is not being brought to a vote on Capitol Hill.
The problems of skilled immigrants could have been fixed many years ago. But the supporters of legalization for the undocumented held these immigrants hostage. Democrats would not agree to increase the numbers of visas for skilled workers unless the Republicans agreed to legalize the more than 10 million immigrants who are in the country without documentation. To make matters worse, they mandated a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and this turned the legislation into a poison pill that the Republicans simply would not swallow.
Comprehensive immigration reform is surely dead, but immigration reform need not be. Smaller pieces of legislation can still make it through the system, and President Obama can still use his executive privilege to clarify policies that presently cause skilled workers to be treated like common criminals by immigration authorities. America's economic prosperity and the human rights of millions are at stake.
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Stanford Law School and a director of research at Pratt School of engineering at Duke University. He is author of Immigrant Exodus and Innovating Women -- which will be released on Sept 2. Read more on his website: www.wadhwa.com.