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Congress must reform immigration laws that send top STEM graduates to China

Because of bureaucracy and delays, America is losing its top foreign-born job creators – particularly those in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) – to competitors abroad. In the global war for talent, the US has every advantage except one: its immigration laws.

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While pursuing his MBA at Cornell, Vishal Shah had an idea for a new company that would enable small-business marketers to create game-based Facebook promotions. Shah planned to open the company in the US but was forced to take a leave of absence to relocate to Bangalore, India due to the slow, cumbersome process of getting a visa.

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Meanwhile, our competitors in India and elsewhere are taking advantage of our own brain drain. Canada targets its talent recruitment strategy directly at our highly skilled workers and students, promising permanent resident status in a matter of months. Chile provides entrepreneurs $40,000 in startup funding and a visa if they start companies there.

China offers Chinese scientists and researchers – educated in American universities – cash, residency in Beijing, access to innovators and coveted honorary titles if they return home. Britain, Australia, Singapore, and other countries are all following suit and aligning their immigration laws with their economic objectives and needs. South Korea, Switzerland, and Spain issue around 80 percent of their visas for economic reasons, while the US admits only 7 percent of immigrants based on our employment needs.

The US is still the destination of choice for many of the world’s brightest, hardest working, most creative and entrepreneurial individuals. Our universities continue to recruit and educate the leaders and job creators of tomorrow. And America’s economy is still the friendliest in the world to start a new business or launch a new product. In the global war for talent, the US has every advantage except one: its immigration laws.

The time for reform is now. We should – and we can – bring our immigration policies in line with our national interests. Washington should update immigration laws to enable our highly qualified graduates to seek residency in a timely manner instead of facing a bureaucratic marathon that literally compels them to take their business elsewhere.

Specifically, the US should create a green-card program for top international graduates in STEM fields. America also needs to offer a “start-up visa” for foreign-born entrepreneurs. And we must raise or remove the arbitrary cap on the number of temporary high-skilled visas (H-1B) for foreign-born STEM graduates.

Fortunately, by overwhelming margins, Americans and their congressional representatives agree that such reforms are needed: 87 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Republicans support proposed legislation that would ensure our top international STEM graduates have a clear path to a green card or visa, so they can stay and create new American jobs.

David Skorton is the president of Cornell University.

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