The U.S. Congress is debating how to overhaul the nation’s immigration system in an effort to get foreign nationals who earn advanced degrees at American universities to stay and work in the country to help the U.S. stay globally competitive.
Some are calling it a “reverse brain drain.” Foreign students flock to American universities to earn master’s degrees and Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering and math.
In 2009, foreign students earned up to two-thirds of the doctorates in physics and engineering awarded by U.S. schools of higher education.
But many, like 25-year-old Yifang Wei from Xian in central China, may not be able to get a visa to work in the United States after graduation.
“Yes, I am very worried, very worried,” said Wei.
Xiao Qin is from Beijing and is working toward his Ph.D. in computer science at Georgetown University in Washington. He would like to work for Google, Yahoo or Microsoft.
“Obviously, we prefer to stay here for several years, but if we cannot get any valid visa we have to leave,” he said.
The United States limits the number of foreigners who can seek careers in the United States, and critics say restrictive immigration policies hurt America’s ability to retain top students.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California said, “While we once asked the brightest minds in the world to come and make their homes here, we now turn them away. Having educated and trained the world’s best students in our universities, we no longer welcome them to enrich this nation.”
High-tech companies recruit workers at the nation’s top universities. But some, like Texas Instruments, say it can take 10 years for their foreign workers to become permanent U.S. residents.
Darla Whitaker, senior vice president at Texas Instruments, said, “This is not sustainable. It hurts our company and our industry, and it places burdens and stresses on our employees.”
The United States now limits the number of immigrants from other countries on a country-by-country basis, meaning students from large nations generally have the longest wait.
A recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy says a highly skilled Indian national could wait 70 years for permanent status.
Vivek Wadhwa conducts research about immigrant entrepreneurs, and is on the faculty of Harvard and Duke Universities.
“We are out of touch. We are in a knowledge economy. It is all about competition. If we don’t keep these people, if we don’t compete, we are going to lose. We are going to become a third world country and they are going to become like us,” said Wadhwa.
Congress is studying ways to change America’s immigration policies.
So far there has not been a consensus, however, on how to reverse the brain drain and keep scholars like Yifang Wei and Xiao Qin in the United States once they graduate from one of America’s top universities.