They're Taking Their Brains and Going Home

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By Vivek Wadhwa
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Seven years ago, Sandeep Nijsure left his home in Mumbai to study computer science at the University of North Texas. Master's degree in hand, he went to work for Microsoft. He valued his education and enjoyed the job, but he worried about his aging parents. He missed watching cricket, celebrating Hindu festivals and following the twists of Indian politics. His wife was homesick, too, and her visa didn't allow her to work.

Not long ago, Sandeep would have faced a tough choice: either go home and give up opportunities for wealth and U.S. citizenship, or stay and bide his time until his application for a green card goes through. But last year, Sandeep returned to India and landed a software development position with Amazon.com in Hyderabad. He and his wife live a few blocks from their families in a spacious, air-conditioned house. No longer at the mercy of the American employer sponsoring his visa, Sandeep can more easily determine the course of his career. "We are very happy with our move," he told me in an e-mail.

The United States has always been the country to which the world's best and brightest -- people like Sandeep -- have flocked in pursuit of education and to seek their fortunes. Over the past four decades, India and China suffered a major "brain drain" as tens of thousands of talented people made their way here, dreaming the American dream.

But burgeoning new economies abroad and flagging prospects in the United States have changed everything. And as opportunities pull immigrants home, the lumbering U.S. immigration bureaucracy helps push them away.

When I started teaching at Duke University in 2005, almost all the international students graduating from our Master of Engineering Management program said that they planned to stay in the United States for at least a few years. In the class of 2009, most of our 80 international students are buying one-way tickets home. It's the same at Harvard. Senior economics major Meijie Tang, from China, isn't even bothering to look for a job in the United States. After hearing from other students that it's "impossible" to get an H-1B visa -- the kind given to highly-skilled workers in fields such as engineering and science -- she teamed up with a classmate to start a technology company in Shanghai. Investors in China offered to put up millions even before 23-year-old Meijie and her 21-year-old colleague completed their business plan.

When smart young foreigners leave these shores, they take with them the seeds of tomorrow's innovation. Almost 25 percent of all international patent applications filed from the United States in 2006 named foreign nationals as inventors. Immigrants founded a quarter of all U.S. engineering and technology companies started between 1995 and 2005, including half of those in Silicon Valley. In 2005 alone, immigrants' businesses generated $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers.

Yet rather than welcome these entrepreneurs, the U.S. government is confining many of them to a painful purgatory. As of Sept. 30, 2006, more than a million people were waiting for the 120,000 permanent-resident visas granted each year to skilled workers and their family members. No nation may claim more than 7 percent, so years may pass before immigrants from populous countries such as India and China are even considered.

Like many Indians, Girija Subramaniam is fed up. After earning a master's in electrical engineering from the University of Virginia in 1998, she joined Texas Instruments as a test engineer. She wanted to stay in the United States, applied for permanent residency in 2002 and has been trapped in immigration limbo ever since. If she so much as accepts a promotion or, heaven forbid, starts her own company, she will lose her place in line. Frustrated, she has applied for fast-track Canadian permanent residency and expects to move north of the border by the end of the year.

For the Kaufmann Foundation, I recently surveyed 1,200 Indians and Chinese who worked or studied in the United States and then returned home. Most were in their 30s, and 80 percent held master's degrees or doctorates in management, technology or science -- precisely the kind of people who could make the greatest contribution to the U.S. economy. A sizable number said that they had advanced significantly in their careers since leaving the United States. They were more optimistic about opportunities for entrepreneurship, and more than half planned to start their own businesses, if they had not done so already. Only a quarter said that they were likely to return to the United States.

Why does all this matter? Because just as the United States has relied on foreigners to underwrite its deficit, it has also depended on smart immigrants to staff its laboratories, engineering design studios and tech firms. An analysis of the 2000 Census showed that although immigrants accounted for only 12 percent of the U.S. workforce, they made up 47 percent of all scientists and engineers with doctorates. What's more, 67 percent of all those who entered the fields of science and engineering between 1995 and 2006 were immigrants. What will happen to America's competitive edge when these people go home?

Immigrants who leave the United States will launch companies, file patents and fill the intellectual coffers of other countries. Their talents will benefit nations such as India, China and Canada, not the United States. America's loss will be the world's gain.

wadhwa@duke.edu

Vivek Wadhwa is a senior research associate at Harvard Law School and executive in residence at Duke University.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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