Plugging the Brain Drain

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Opponents of immigration reform often try to make the case that granting legal status to the more than 11 million undocumented people now living in the shadows in the U.S. will take jobs away from American citizens.

But the comprehensive immigration reform package now taking shape in Congress actually may go a long way to shoring up a critical need which currently is not being filled by Americans. For well over a decade, the U.S. has not been producing enough home-grown engineers, scientists and other highly skilled technicians to fill the growing needs of our emerging high-tech industries.

The key word here is “home-grown.” MIT and other crown jewels of our university system continue to educate the world’s brightest people, churning out thousands of advanced degrees annually. The problem, at least since the mid-1990s, has been that many of these advanced students have come to the U.S. from overseas. As soon as they graduate, we throw most of them out of the country.

The U.S. for decades has had a special visa category for highly skilled workers, known as an H-1B visa, which can permit a foreign grad student to stay in the country for up to six years after receiving an advanced degree. Until the early 1990s, the annual quota of H-1B visas rarely was reached.

But by 1998 it became clear that the number of American-born graduates emerging from our top tech schools was falling far behind the demand for their skills from new high-tech industries like bioscience and information technology. As the number of foreign-born students seeking advanced degrees increased, it also became clear that the H-1B quota was woefully inadequate. The number of applicants for H-1B visas began to exceed the annual cap. In 1998, Congress increased the H-1B visa cap to 115,000; in 2000, the cap was increased again, to 195,000 for FY (fiscal years) 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Then domestic security concerns in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 suddenly changed the way we viewed the growing number of foreign-born students in the U.S. After 9/11, they were no longer seen as prized intellects who could fill the labs of our 21st-century industries. Unfortunately, It was not hard for a nation still reeling from the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history to imagine these bright young people as potential recruits for terrorist sleeper cells.

This perception ultimately was expressed in our H-1B visa policy. In 2004, Congress decided to let the H-1B visa cap revert to 65,000. Even worse, spouses of visa recipients were counted against the quota. In the wake of the truncated policy, all of the slots for H-1B visas were filled each year within a few weeks of April 1, the first date the applications are made available.

In 2008, the entire quota was exhausted by April 2, less than 24 hours after the line for applications formed. Under existing Customs and Immigration rules, the 123,480 petitions that had been received as of April 3, 2008 were pooled and then 65,000 lucky applicants were selected at random for further processing.

For many companies, reaching the cap early in the year means either deferring or losing entirely job candidates who they have been recruiting for months. Having their high-tech job candidates queue up for non-H-1B visas also isn’t a viable option: general employment visas, which come in five categories, are impeded by immigration law issues like per-country limits, which make it more difficult for workers to immigrate to the U.S. from nations like China and India. Those limits can mean wait times of up to 70 years for Indians in certain visa categories or 20 years for Chinese nationals, the National Foundation for American Policy reports. Workers with advanced degrees from India or China are likely to wait about eight years to be granted a general employment visa, according to the report.

Even before comprehensive immigration reform moved to the front of the national agenda this year, it was apparent that a political consensus was forming to address the skilled labor issue. Both presidential candidates in the 2012 election supported a major expansion of the H-B1 visa program, agreeing that the potential damage to U.S. competitiveness posed by the shortage of skilled workers–and the fact we’re training skilled workers and sending them back to nations that are competing with us–threatens our long-term national security.

According to a report in The New York Times, the comprehensive reform package now being drafted in Congress includes a bipartisan proposal to change the rules governing visas for skilled scientific workers. According to the Times, the proposal would increase the annual H-1B visa quota by 50,000 and revise the employment-based visa caps so that anyone who receives a degree from a U.S. institution in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is not subject to them.

So immigration reform is not just about telling undocumented workers they don’t have to pack up and leave. It’s also about telling some of our top graduate students we really, really want them to stay.