Politics Trumping Visa Reform

06/28/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

While Arizona's new immigration law is creating a national uproar, another controversy on the subject bubbled to the surface a couple of weeks ago when White House Science czar John P. Holdren commented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the United States can't expect to be number one in science and technology forever. His statement also drew an immediate and angry national response, but engineers and scientists across the board have been warning of this impending crisis for years and the culprit is restrictive visa laws that affect critical segments of America's economy and government agencies.

The comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform bill sponsored by New York Democrat Charles Schumer and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham is supposed to address this issue, but legislators now say it could be 2012 before any reform bill is passed, which means the U.S. will continue to hemorrhage entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists. Even if the legislation did pass, it would still take separate resolutions to address laws in the Patriot Act that further complicate visa issuance to talented foreign-born students and researchers.

Immigration issues regarding illegal workers and securing the Mexican border is a national priority. It will be the subject of protracted debate and seemingly endless congressional committees, but quickly needed reforms like those for the H1B visa issue are being eclipsed in the argument. Its critical relevance to America's economy, education, and national security, has many representatives arguing visa reform should be a separate piece of legislation instead of a provision lumped into a massive bill as a bargaining point in negotiations. And most American businesses agree.

National organizations estimate more than 37 percent of PhDs in science and engineering awarded by colleges and universities each year go to foreign-born students. While most are reportedly staying according to a 2007 study, experts say those numbers are likely to nosedive in the next report.

Undoubtedly the U.S. produces great home-grown engineers and scientists, but a formidable number of immigrants have brought revolutionary advances in sciences and technologies to American shores. Croatian immigrant Nikola Tesla made the national electrical grid possible with his invention of a coil. Russian immigrant and aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky invented the helicopter. German immigrant Albert Einstein and Italian immigrant Enrico Fermi helped usher in the atomic sciences. Hungarian immigrant John von Neumann pioneered the digital age that made computers possible. And, if Werner von Braun hadn't surrendered to the 44th Infantry Division in World War II Berlin, Americans wouldn't have had a space program. These immigrants helped form the backbone of U.S. leadership in science and technology that sustained this nation on the world's stage for the last 100 years. This is one case where the U.S. needs history to repeat itself.

The unique business model that drives competitiveness between private and government laboratories in a capitalist system has been the propellant that maintains the U.S. as the world's leader in science and technology. From Silicon Valley to Oak Ridge, the greatest tool American-based companies have is their historical ability to bring in talented foreign minds without hassle to research, start new businesses and teach at colleges or universities. And it must be preserved.

This isn't the only problem threatening American dominance in these fields. State and federal economic problems tightens available venture capital. The politicizing of science and technology in the quest for grants, government and private sector cutbacks in research and a growing lack of national vision have been just as lethal. It's created a perfect storm for global competitors to lure away our best and brightest minds. And it's not like America was caught unprepared.

In a 2005 Congressional hearing, then-President of the National Academy of Engineering William Wulf informed them that "...Top-notch students and teachers from abroad help make U.S. colleges and universities global centers of excellence and diversity. Highly skilled workers and world-class business leaders who come to work with or for U.S.-based companies help keep our economy growing .... but foreign companies, universities and governments are marketing themselves as friendlier places to do business or get an education. In the race to attract top international talent, we are losing ground."

The fact is American-educated engineers, entrepreneurs, and scientists are now discovering better opportunities outside the U.S. and each one who moves is also taking jobs and technological advances that could benefit this country and generate unlimited economic opportunities. To further delay visa reform to garner needed votes on a comprehensive bill amounts to the U.S. trading away its world leadership role in business, science and technology for party politics.