Proposed Legislation Aims to Keep Foreign STEM Grads Here22 Jun 2011
There is mounting concern about what some observers call the “reverse brain drain” – the emerging trend among foreign science and technology students to leave the United States after they complete their high-level training, rather than trying to find a way to stay here and work. Staying can require a significant investment of time and money to get through the labyrinthine immigration process. As we have noted in previous postings, a small but apparently growing number of talented foreign students are returning to their homelands to make the most of the new – and expanding – economic opportunities there. (See Study: Immigrant Entrepreneurs Leaving U.S. for Better Opportunities at Home, MurthyBlog, 11.May.2011, and Reversing the Reverse Brain Drain, MurthyBlog, 10.Mar.2011.)
Talk of a reverse brain drain has provoked handwringing in the corridors of American industry, particularly among high-tech employers who need a steady supply of well-trained graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math – the STEM fields – to stay ahead of their competition. Foreign students comprise a large proportion of the STEM graduates at American universities, and high-tech employers often complain that our immigration system makes it too hard for foreign STEM grads to stay here after they gain their cutting-edge skills. In effect, they say, we are exporting the very people we should be intent on keeping here, to build our economic base.
Peter Cleveland, Intel’s VP for global public policy, told Bloomberg.com that although many scientists come to the U.S. for advanced training, all too often, they can’t get a visa to stay here and work. He comments that, “We drop the ball when we let these individuals take this education elsewhere,” and suggests, “We should let them stay here and work for Apple, work for Facebook, work for Intel.” (See Intel, IBM May Benefit From Green Card Bill for Skilled Workers, by Katie Hoffmann, Bloomberg.com, 14.Jun.2011.)
President Obama alluded to the problem in his State of The Union address this year. In recent months, he has continued to press his point: it makes no sense to educate the world’s best and brightest scientists and engineers only to send them home again – to compete with us – once they have their cutting-edge training. California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who represents the high-tech hothouse of Silicon Valley, takes a similar view, and has introduced legislation to help more foreign STEM graduates to stay here after they complete their training. According to Rep. Lofgren, her bill, the Immigration Driving Entrepreneurship in America (IDEA) Act of 2011, would:
- “Help American companies attract and retain the best and the brightest workers by empowering them to seek green cards for advanced degree graduates in STEM fields from the most distinguished American universities.
- “Attract new businesses by awarding green cards to entrepreneurs with significant venture capital funding who agree to open their start-ups in the United States.
- “Incentivize job creation by awarding green cards to entrepreneurs who create new jobs for at least 10 American workers.
- “Fix our employment-based immigration system by eliminating backlogs and streamlining regulatory hurdles.
- “Protect American workers by increasing wages and reforming the broken H1B and L-1 visa programs.
- “Better prepare American students for jobs in new technologies by investing significant capital into improving STEM education in the U.S., and
- “Promote investment in the American economy by reforming the EB-5 Employment Creation Investor Program.”
(See Lofgren Sponsors Bill to Promote Innovation, Research and Job Growth,” Press Release, Office of Rep. Zoe Lofgren, 14.Jun.2011.) At this writing, neither the text of the bill nor an official bill summary was available online, so the details of the proposal – such as what specific changes the bill would make to the H1B and L-1 programs – remain to be seen. That said, Lofgren’s bill has garnered support from technology giants like Intel, Oracle, and Google, according to a recent posting on Politico.com, suggesting there’s much to like in the legislation for industry and potential H1Bs and L-1s alike. (See Tech Execs Seek Visas for ‘Hotshots’ by Kim Hart, Politico.com, 13.Jun.2011.)
At the moment, Lofgren’s bill has 13 original co-sponsors, including six from her home state of California. The question now is whether she can recruit a significant number of GOP members – or any – to support her proposal. All of the current co-sponsors are Democrats, and without GOP backing, Lofgren’s bill is a dead letter. As Politico.com notes, many GOP members, including Rep. Darrell Issa of California, agree that we need to allow more foreign STEM grads to stay here, but they would prefer to eliminate other programs – such as the Diversity Visa Lottery – reallocating the program’s 50,000 green cards to promote the same goals as Lofgren’s bill. Rep. Issa has his own measure that would do just that.
In sum, there is basic agreement that a problem exists. Now it’s just a matter of getting the two parties to get over their political differences long enough to reach a pragmatic solution – easier said than done, these days. We will continue to follow this matter, and report on any progress that emerges in the coming months. Keep your fingers crossed.