America’s Great Brain-Drain: Is it Time to Take Action?

By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas
As college seniors across the nation prepare for graduation in May, one simple question looms over that tassel and gown—will I get a job?
In a struggling economy, it’s no secret that jobs are scarce and the workforce has become more competitive than ever before. For immigrants, however, the climb is a lot steeper.

According to research conducted by the National Foundation for American Policy, “a highly skilled Indian national sponsored today for the most common skilled employment-based immigrant visa could wait 70 years to receive a green card.” Additionally, only 140,000 employment visas can be awarded annually to foreigners seeking careers in the United States. Of that, each country can get no more than 7 percent of the total number of visa holders.
With scarce visas, intense competition and limited job market, skilled and talented immigrants are forced to travel back home in search of better opportunities, taking their expertise, skill and ideas with them and compete with American companies giving rise to America’s reverse-brain drain phenomena.

Vivek Wadhwa, Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, says the world’s best and brightest are no longer begging to be let into the US anymore and are, instead, “providing an unintentional gift” countries abroad.

“It’s not just the people we are denying visas to who are leaving; even U.S. permanent residents and naturalized citizens are going to where they think the grass is greener. As a result, India and China are experiencing an entrepreneurship boom,” Wadhwa said.

“As research conducted by my team at Duke, UC-Berkeley, Harvard, and New York University has shown, 52.4% of all startups in Silicon Valley, from 1995 to 2005, were founded by immigrants. With all these immigrants leaving, and the next generation of foreign-born entrepreneurs trapped in “immigration limbo,” we won’t have as many immigrant founded startups in the future”, he said. “There won’t be more jobs for Americans; just less startups in the U.S. and more abroad. The U.S. pie will be smaller.”

Wadhwa also cited economic opportunities, access to local markets and family ties as some of the major factors drawing immigrants back to their homeland.

This phenomenon, however, is not limited to immigrants alone. Given the current economic crisis, many Americans are also seeking to expand their horizons and seek better career opportunities abroad.

After seeing the devastating floods and immense suffering in Pakistan, Ruby Khan from Stow, Ohio, moved to Islamabad to help her father’s country. With B.A. and M.A. degrees in International affairs and Conflict Management and knowledge of Urdu, Khan was poised and ready to make the move.

“My academic background and work experience prepared me quite well to work in Pakistan. Since I am a student of international relations/conflict management and South Asia, it has been quite a fascinating time for me,” Khan said.

Now a Coordination Program Officer, Khan says the US should actually encourage the hiring of those with experience abroad, both in the US government and private businesses.

“I think people search for work options, international experience and perspective. Once you live abroad you develop a different attitude and appreciation to the US,” said Khan.

“As Americans, we sometimes take our political and cultural perspectives for granted. We have to take the time to listen to what others are saying and offering. Things like democracy have many forms and faces and we need to recognize that ours is not the singular perspective. I think living abroad helps us understand this,” she said.

So what should be America’s next move to address this draining phenomenon?

Wadhwa suggests changes in the immigration law are the first step to keep talent and skill from slipping away to other countries.

“We need to increase the number of skilled worker visas, particularly the EB-1, EB-2 and EB-3 visa categories. To do this, we could make a visa contingent on the purchase of a home for $250,000 or more, thereby providing a boost to the struggling housing market. We should provide permanent resident visas to skilled immigrants who graduate from the nation’s top research universities and top universities’ science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. We should also make green-card acquisition dependent on skilled immigrants’ founding companies that create jobs for Americans,” Wadhwa said.

With the presidential election season fast approaching, it seems unlikely that these proposals will be cemented any time soon. However, some initiative and change is needed soon to maintain the global competitiveness, innovative streak and ambitious plans that the “land of opportunity” has professed for so long. It is time for the US to sit up and take notice, before the Silicon Valley moves base to Beijing or Pune.



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