After funding their studies and awarding them degrees, America forces some 50,000 highly educated foreign-born workers out of the country each year. This is because of stringent caps on temporary and permanent employment visas that were put in place 45 years ago, in the case of the temporary visas, and 20 years ago, in the case of the permanent visas. These policies need to be brought into the 21st century if America is to remain competitive.
Meanwhile, other developed countries are welcoming foreign-born talent. Canada, Australia and the UK, for example, provide more than 60 percent of their annual permanent visas on an employment basis. The United States: a mere 15 percent.
The U.S. can’t sustain such a brain drain, especially since international students seem to have more interest than U.S. students in the kinds of degrees the economy requires – in advanced science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields.
The International Institute of Education reported a 16 percent increase in the number of international students studying the STEM disciplines in the United States during the past academic year, 2011-12. During the period 2002-2006, the number of foreign-born students receiving science and engineering doctorates from U.S. universities increased 44 percent, six times the rate for U.S. citizens.
Graduate students in STEM fields mostly finance their education through research assistantships, teaching assistantships and grants – which are often funded by the federal government. In 2009, for example, 40 percent of STEM doctorate recipients were international. Almost all of them depended on assistantships and grants. Federal funding for such programs in 2009 came to $811 million.
The investment is worth it. According to a report by the American Enterprise Institute and Partnership for a New American Economy, 76 percent of the patents awarded to applicants at the top 10 patent-generating U.S. universities in 2011 had foreign-born inventors. Of these patents, 99 percent were in STEM fields.
That’s not the only benefit. Each foreign-born, advanced degree graduate working in a STEM field creates, on average, 2.62 American jobs. Indeed, between 1995 and 2005 foreign-born STEM workers founded half of the firms in Silicon Valley.
Despite their contributions to the U.S. economy, it is difficult for many STEM graduates to stay in America. The reason is U.S. immigration policy.
STEM graduates can stay in the United States for up to 29 months after they graduate for what the government calls Optional Practical Training. Afterwards, they must petition for one of the 65,000 standard employment (H-1B) visas or one of the 20,000 visas for advance degree holders made available each year to all international students regardless of graduate fields.
This year, petitions for H-1B visas reached the limit within two months.
If attained, an H-1B visa is valid for three years, with a possible six-year extension. Next, one must gain an employment-based green card, issued to 140,000 workers annually from all industries, STEM workers included.
Not all foreign-born students are top flight, of course, but it’s obvious that valuable talent is leaving America’s shores for countries offering more-attractive opportunities. One Chinese program, for example, gives Chinese scientists who return home free housing, a bonus of 1 million yuan (or $157,000) and prestigious academic titles.
American businesses understand the need for reform. Venture Capitalist John Doer suggests we “staple a green card to the diploma of anyone that graduates with a degree in the physical sciences or engineering in the U.S.” The late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, had urged the United States to offer a visa to any foreign student who earned an engineering degree from a U.S. university.
U.S. taxpayers are investing heavily in international students – particularly those in the STEM fields. It would make sense to invest in their retention as well, so the United States can reap the benefits of their talents and future economic contributions. To do this, immigration policy needs to be reformed.