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.

Scott Keeler/The Tampa Bay Times/AP
Caroline DeWitt, 12, examines two convex lenses during a NASA-sponsored STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., Aug. 7. Op-ed contributor and Cornell University president David Skorton says there's bipartisan and public support for 'proposed legislation that would ensure [America's] top international STEM graduates have a clear path to a green card or visa, so they can stay and create new American jobs.'

Jonas Korlach left Cornell with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, a patent on technology that effectively reads the entire human genome, and an idea that spawned a company now employing 285 people and generating more than $30 million in revenue per year. Yet because of American immigration laws, Dr. Jonas would have been kicked out of the United States, along with his invention, the jobs he created, and the revenue his company generates, had a US Congresswoman – Rep. Anna Eshoo (D) of California – not assisted him in 2004.

Thousands of immigrants earn advanced degrees from top US universities every year. They train under our best faculty (many of whom are also immigrants), conduct cutting-edge research, and leave with the skills and knowledge necessary to power our innovation economy. But with a dysfunctional immigration policy, America is now losing these creators of tomorrow’s great companies to competitors abroad.

Consider the case of Dr. Neta Zach, who came to New York City as a postdoctoral associate and became an intern to learn business development at Cornell’s Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization. Dr. Zach was offered several positions with innovative companies eager to use her knowledge and skills, but they all fell through due to visa restrictions. Even receiving a faculty position at another university was not enough to extend her visa, and she had to leave the US. She is now living in Israel, where she works as a scientific director for a nonprofit company that drives the development of treatments for Lou Gherig’s disease.

Zach isn’t alone. She and other talented foreign-born graduates – particularly those in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields – face bureaucratic hurdles and delays in accessing the few visas and green cards allotted each year that would grant them temporary or permanent residence in the US.

Before the emergence of a global economy, it made sense to require foreign students to return to their home countries when they completed their degrees. By educating future leaders, American universities were helping to build robust bonds between cultures and establish long-lasting relations between their governments. Returning home, foreign students also helped to stimulate demand for American know-how, technology, and products. In turn, this meant jobs for American workers.

These days, when barriers to international commerce have all but disappeared, America’s outdated immigration policy has become a drag on our national economy. The bipartisan Partnership for a New American Economy recently found that of the more than 1,500 patents filed by the 10 leading US universities or university systems in 2011, more than 75 percent have foreign-born inventors.

Many more of these patents, like Jonas Korlach’s, could lead to American companies and American jobs if Congress had the political courage and discipline to overhaul our immigration laws. Top graduates from China and India face backlogs of up to nine years before they receive their green cards, and the bottlenecks have gotten so bad that new applicants from India face projected wait times of many months to decades.

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.

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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