Immigration Laws Must Allow the Best and the Brightest Into the U.S.

Earlier this month Silicon Valley was abuzz with the exciting news that two locals, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider had won the prestigious Nobel Prize in medicine. The two were honored for their work in DNA replication, along with Jack Szostak of Harvard who also partnered in the research. Also noted in reports was that Elizabeth Blackburn is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Australia, and that Jack Szostak was born in the United Kingdom.

The significance of these prize winners' immigration backgrounds is highlighted in an article from this week's Wall Street Journal, "Immigrant Scientists Create Jobs and Win Nobels", by the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ms. Susan Hockfield. The article digs into the immigration history of recent Nobel Prize American winners. While eight out of nine of this year's winners in chemistry, physics and medicine are American citizens, four of the Americans were born outside of the U.S. and only came here as graduate or post-doctoral students, or as scientists. According to the article, they came because the U.S. system of higher education and advanced research has been a magnet for creative talent.

U.S. immigration laws need to encourage drawing in this global talent, as opposed to obstructing it with arcane, protectionist immigration laws. The U.S.' role in global innovation, as well as the U.S. economy will benefit. According to the article, of the 35 young innovators recognized this year by Technology Review magazine for their exceptional new ideas, only six went to high school in the United States. From MIT alone, foreign graduates have founded an estimated 2,340 active U.S. companies that employ over 100,000 people.

The immigration laws, however, do not encourage foreign students to stay after graduation and put their newly acquired knowledge to work in the U.S. A foreign national applying for a student visa at a U.S. Consulate abroad will be denied a visa if the U.S. Consular Officer does not believe the student will return to their home country upon graduation. To further complicate matters, if a foreign student does find U.S. employment it is often in capacity as an H-1B specialty worker and the student and their prospective employer will have to compete for one of only 65,000 annual H-1B visas. Many graduate and post-doc students come to the U.S. on a J-1 visa, which often requires the visa holder to return to their home country for two full years before applying for permanent residence in the U.S.

Instead of driving U.S. educated talent away, our immigration laws need to encourage the most talented to stay. The MIT President suggests that we need a broad immigration policy that would allow foreign students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math to easily become legal permanent residents. This sort of proposal is already being advocated, and President Barack Obama is already calling for such a policy.

Both sides of the immigration reform debate will agree with the MIT President when she says that "we also need to aggressively develop more homegrown talent". She cites to reports showing that the U.S. has lost their lead in education - not because our college graduation rate has declined but because it has accelerated in other parts of the world. Ms. Hockfield argues that we don't just need more college graduates, but we actually need to educate and train more Ph.D.'s.

While we get to work on "developing more homegrown talent", let's not let our immigration laws drive the foreign-born, U.S.-educated from the U.S. Let's also work on keeping the best and brightest people creating and innovating here.

H-1B Visas, Immigration Reform, Work Visas / by Michelle Gee