Reversing the Reverse Brain Drain

For decades, industrialized countries like the United States benefited from the international “brain drain,” as the brightest and best talents from the developing world came here seeking opportunities that were unavailable in their home countries. In the event, many of these immigrants did not just find opportunity here, they created it, generating thousands of new jobs and, in some cases, establishing entirely new industries. It was good for us, but a deadweight loss for all the sending countries, who missed the chance to lure their most promising students back home, along with their talents, ambition, and state-of-the-art education.

Now the talk is increasingly of a reverse brain drain, a trend that has talented foreign students and entrepreneurs looking homeward in search of the juiciest jobs and promising business opportunities. Human motivation can be complicated, often irreduceable to any single cause; among the “pull factors” that draw well-educated émigrés back to their home countries, family considerations often play a role, as does cultural affinity, and a raft of other personal concerns, but the wealth of new opportunities at home, in places like India and China, are perhaps the most alluring. There is also an enormous “push factor” – an immigration system that makes it hard to stay in the United States, no matter how talented you are. Many would-be immigrants eventually throw up their hands and go home.

The loss is ours, cautions a recent NBC News story, and we should be concerned. (See Can America Keep Best, Brightest Immigrants? by Tom Brokaw, NBC News, 03.Mar.2011.) NBC News spoke to several foreign-born entrepreneurs who cited immigration difficulties as a key reason for considering a move home from the United States.

One Indian entrepreneur, Kunal Bahl, told NBC News that his online coupon business, SnapDeal, now employs 300 people – in India. After earning degrees in engineering and business from the University of Pennsylvania, NBC reports, “Bahl’s visa ran out, and he took his skills back to India.” According to NBC, Bahl went where he felt welcome. Close to family in a newly vibrant India.” As Bahl told the reporter, “There is no either/or relationship between the American dream and the Indian dream. They can both exist, it’s just that the guys who are building the Indian dream right now could have been part of the American dream, too.

NBC News spoke with several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs recently, and “more than half said they think they’ll end up back in their home countries rather than staying in the U.S. because of visa issues – and they would take jobs with them when they leave.” Not a good sign.

Vivek Wadhwa, scholar and entrepreneur, and a frequent commenter on immigration policy, told NBC News that many people here are blaming immigrants for taking American jobs, not realizing that immigrant entrepreneurs are actually providing many of the new jobs in emerging industries. The article notes that Wadhwa’s own research “found that between 1995 and 2005, 25 percent of the startups in Silicon Valley had at least one immigrant founder,” and that “those startups created nearly a half-million jobs.”

Wadhwa elaborated in a post (See Why Silicon Valley Immigrant Entrepreneurs are Returning Home, by Vivek Wadhwa, Tech Crunch, 06.Mar.2011.) on his blog:

At a time when our economy is stagnating, some American political leaders are working to keep the world’s best and brightest out. They mistakenly believe that skilled immigrants take American jobs away. The opposite is true: skilled immigrants start the majority of Silicon Valley startups; they create jobs.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurship is booming in countries that compete with us. And more than half a million doctors, scientists, researchers, and engineers in the U.S. are stuck in “immigration limbo.” They are on temporary work visas and are waiting for permanent-resident visas, which are in extremely short supply. These workers can’t start companies, justify buying houses, or grow deep roots in their communities. Once they get in line for a visa, they can’t even accept a promotion or change jobs. They could be required to leave the U.S. immediately – without notice – if their employer lays them off. Rather than live in constant fear and stagnate in their careers, many are returning home.

The solution is simple, Wadhwa says: provide more permanent-resident visas, and create a more generous investor visa program, to spur new immigrant-led startup companies. We could not agree more, and we hope Congress will take action to reverse the reverse brain drain before it’s too late.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.