America’s quest to reverse its brain-drain


The academic achievement of Ethiopia’s IT prodigy, Betsegaw Tadele and his much hyped graduation ceremony at the present of President Obama was extraordinary and spectacular. For his family and fellow Ethiopians and of course for Africans as well, his achievement is a source of great pride that their son who has grown up in a very humble background and completed his high school in one of Ethiopia’s “poor and ill-equipped high schools”  achieved what many well to-do students didn’t.
For the Americans including President Obama, however, it was a clear indication that in science fields, particularly in mathematics, engineering and IT technology; their fellow American students are still far behind immigrant students who are even coming from Africa. As President Obama openly admit it in his key-note address at the graduation ceremony, it is also an indication that America’s educational system is in need of an “engine overhaul’


Darrell West, an American education expert, in his book entitled “Brain Gain”, indicated that American schools simply are not producing enough highly trained graduates in mathematics, science, engineering, and technology fields. He explained that other countries produce a disproportionate number of those graduates. According to his study, the disparities are glaring and sobering. 38 % of Korean graduates earn degrees in science and engineering, along with 33 % of Germans, 28 % of French, 27 % of British, 26 % of Japanese and just 16 % of Americans. The number of engineering and science PhDs earned by US citizens actually has fallen by more than 20 % in the past decade.
America’s educational deficiencies have created what Microsoft Executive Vice President, Brad Smith describes as an economic paradox. He told the Wall Street Journal that “Too many Americans can’t find jobs, yet too many companies can’t fill open positions. There are too few Americans with the necessary science, technology, engineering, and math skills to meet companies’ demand.” According to American educational statistical data, the United States creates 120,000 jobs each year requiring a bachelor’s degree in computer science, yet produces only 40,000 graduates annually with such degrees. Only 4 % of American high schools offer advanced-placement classes in computer science.
Indeed, more than one quarter of all US scientists and engineers are foreign-born, notes Edward Alden in his book “The Closing of the American Border”. Darrell West, in his book “Brain Gain” indicated that by 2000, more than half of the PhD-level engineers in the United States was foreign born. In Silicon Valley, immigrants have started a vast share of new companies, including Google, Intel, and eBay. Moreover, immigrants are growing ever more central to America’s knowledge economy. In 1999, American-born scientists were granted 90,000 patents, compared to 70,000 from scientists from all other countries. But by 2009, more patents were being granted to foreign-born scientists (96,000) than to Americans (93,000).
The economic benefits from high-skilled immigration are enormous. In a very real way, immigrants are the fuel of America’s economic engine. Continued American leadership in technology is absolutely vital to economic growth. In his recent book, The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti, an economics professor, at University of California finds that every high-tech job in a metropolitan area produces five service jobs in the local economy, compared to 1.6 service jobs created by every job in the traditional manufacturing sector.
But if America continues its current immigration policies, the supply of highly skilled foreign workers will dry up. The US Congress recognized this in the 1990s when it began to increase the number of work visas for highly skilled foreigners to 115,000 in 1999 and 195,000 in 2001. But in the aftermath of 9/11, the increased numbers were not renewed. According to the US State Department, such work visas now are capped at 65,000 a year, with an additional 20,000 visas for foreign students earning advanced degrees from American universities.
Technology analysts argued that those numbers are hopelessly inadequate to preserve America’s leadership role in technology. Indeed, the quotas for highly skilled foreign workers are so low that in some recent years the slots were filled within days. Nearly all of the work visas are secured by workers sponsored by major companies, with the result that few highly skilled foreign workers are available to small firms or to start their own companies. According to “Brain Gain”, the numbers are too small, and the process is complicated. It often costs sponsoring companies $40,000 to $50,000 in attorney fees to secure a visa for each worker.
According to the US State Department, again the shortage of Work visas was worsened with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Buried inside was a provision called the Employ American Workers Act, which restricted workers visas for any company that received federal recovery assistance. Political analysts for long argued that the problems with the initial work visas are just the start. Once here, even as they are building lives in America, highly skilled immigrants face severe numerical limits and long waits for green cards, the visas that provide permanent legal residency and lead to citizenship. As of 2007, one million skilled workers were waiting as long as ten years for the 140,000 green cards available each year for skilled workers.
Compounding the problem is that no single country can account for more than 7 % of the green cards; highly skilled immigrants from India, who have started more U.S. companies than immigrants from the next four countries combined, are limited to the same 9,800 annual green cards as those of every other country. Workers on temporary visas cannot switch jobs or even earn a promotion without starting the application process all over again, and their spouses often are forbidden to work. As a result, despite their critical importance to the economy, many highly skilled immigrants are returning home or going to other countries, taking their talent and capital with them.
According to Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, one American visa quota that often goes unfilled is for investors and that is because the requirements, usually including an initial investment of $1 million, are so onerous that few can meet the criteria for one of the 10,000 visas available each year. But even if it were easier to attain such visas, that might not be the best way to promote immigrant-created American businesses. A 2007 study published by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation reported that among American high-technology firms started by immigrants, only 1.6 % was founded by people who immigrated for the purpose of starting a business. More than half were created by foreigners who came to the United States to study, and 40 % by people who came here to work.
Clearly it is vital to open the pipeline to these skills and entrepreneurial potential. Yet American immigration policy runs completely contrary to that need. The biggest stumbling block is “family reunification.” A sizable majority of visas, nearly two-thirds are allocated every year for that purpose, with work-based visas and political asylum sharing the remainder.
But, for the most benevolent of reasons, family reunification has become the main driver of immigration policy, while crowding out opportunities for working immigrants who would make a tremendous contribution to American prosperity. “No other major developed economy gives such a low priority to work based immigration,” observe economists Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny, who report that the United States allocates the smallest share of permanent-resident visas to work-based immigrants. The Economist observes that “for more than a decade America has been choking off its supply of foreign talent, like a scuba diver squeezing his own breathing tube.”
Countries that once looked longingly at America’s economic stature are taking advantage of its immigration-policy follies. Canada, for instance, even though it has only one-tenth the population of the United States, issues more employment-based visas than America do. Even traditionally insular China and Japan are liberalizing immigration rules for highly skilled professionals.
Foreign entrepreneurs can get a visa for Chile in a few weeks, which have led to the creation of five hundred new companies started by immigrants from thirty-seven countries in only two years. “Many of those who flock to Silicon Valley, as it has been dubbed, would rather have gone to America, but couldn’t face a decade of immigration humiliation,” reports the Economist.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a wildly successful businessman who is tracing his roots in Germany, says that “reforming a broken immigration system is the single most important step the federal government could take to bolster the economy.” Among the many steps which need to take to restore American economic growth and prosperity, none offers a more immediate return than improving the immigration system.
If the federal government changed the relevant laws and admitted highly skilled people into the country, the United States will achieve its long standing quest to tackle its brain drain and also would see those new immigrants contributing to the economy within a year. That’s a straightforward step toward greater prosperity. It is indisputably true that ensuring future American prosperity means continuing to welcome ample numbers of hard-working newcomers into the American family.