06/12/2013 08:11 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

U.S. Needs Immigration 2.0 for Highly Skilled: My Case

As a young exchange student to the United States from Italy, my mind boggled from an immersion into new customs, not to mention the sounds of a completely different language that only compounded this culture shock. But there was no confusion about the friendliness of people that lived here; they seemed so open-minded, and the air was full of free spirit and endless opportunities, unlike what I had experienced before. That inviting spirit never quite left me even when I went back to Europe, and perhaps that yearning to be back to the country of such freedom and opportunity led me to come back to the U.S. to complete my MBA and then ultimately to stay and work. I love this country, and I try to give back through my work for the private as well as the non-profit sector. This is my story. Is it unique? I don't think so.

There are millions of immigrants who have a similar story to mine. But despite efforts by these highly skilled immigrants like myself to be a productive member of this country for the long haul, the legal path that one must take to make such commitment is being paved with countless paperwork, mounting lawyer fees, and complicated procedures. I had often wondered why so many people who come to this country to study end up leaving either to go back to their home country or elsewhere. But, in going through this process personally, it became evident to me that the immigration process of the United States makes it very difficult and slow to move towards proper long-term immigration, even for those who spent several years in the country to earn an advanced degree such as PhDs, MDs, STEM, MBAs, JDs and others. In the modern world of global competitiveness, this is a problem as highly skilled members of our society have many worldwide options to deploy their talent. I believe it is incumbent on us not only to gather such talent right from the start, but also to retain them.

Unfortunately, these hurdles that legal highly skilled immigrants must go through, while included in the bipartisan framework proposed by the Gang of Eight, are hardly mentioned to the public. The Senate finally began its immigration reform debate last Friday, but their bickering continues, mostly focused on the 11 million undocumented immigrants and their politically expedient concern regarding border security. However, in the 2011 PEW report, there are over 40 million legal immigrants in the United States, and their concerns need to be addressed with as much urgency; it should go hand in hand with the current debate.

As we play this political tug-of-war, the country itself is in danger of losing its place at the top of a global society. A 2011 report from the Immigration Policy Center shows that most countries with comparable economic power have long ago made it easier for immigrants to become long-term residents, and thereby contribute even more to their new home countries. Such a report is troubling, especially for this country, since 40 percent of STEM PhDs now awarded in the United States now go to those who are nonresidents of this country, yet less than half of them stay. Some of those graduates undeniably always meant to depart the United States upon graduation. Yet, there are many documented cases where these bright scholars, who spent nearly a decade in the country learning not only about their academic discipline but also the language, the culture and the American way of life, cannot obtain permanent residency (green card), let alone an extended visa. But awarding them residency status would allow them to stay beyond their school years to work and to give back to our society. Let's not just, in spirit, invite all to join this country, but adjust the system to execute this spirit in a secure and timely manner.

Certainly, the proper checks and balances must be in place to guarantee a safe immigration process, but let's not fall into the danger of too much protectionism. Studies show that protectionist thinking leads to long-term detrimental effects on our economy. Simply put, if these American-trained STEM scholars are not able to stay and work in the United States, they will be recruited to countries who welcome them. Their talent will then be used by companies based outside this country to develop and create new ideas and products. And it will be these scholars' innovative thinking -- cultivated in the U.S. -- that will end up reducing the competitive advantage of our own companies.

The United States, a nation founded by immigrants, has the strongest economy in the world today. Amongst all nations, we should understand the value that immigrants bring. I urge you now to see immigrants again as a valuable part of this nation, critical in building a stronger future. These motivated immigrants have already acted on their desire to come to the United States to contribute. In the end, it is in our own economic interest to continue to partner with the brightest of our worldwide generation.