At last year’s Techonomy Detroit conference, salesforce.com’s Vivek Kundra, who from 2009 to 2011 was the first U.S. Chief Information Officer, lamented the disconnect between an education system that attracts the world’s best and brightest and an immigration system that prevents them from working here legally. “It is broken,” said Kundra. “It makes absolutely no sense when we educate some of the smartest people in the world with advanced degrees and then ask them to leave the country and go start up companies elsewhere.”
A recent article by Kevin Sullivan in The Washington Post highlights this conundrum with a profile of two MIT inventors, Anurag Bajpayee and Prakash Narayan, whose water-decontamination technology has attracted serious interest from investors, but whose visas both expire soon. “Because of the restrictive U.S. visa system,” Sullivan reports, “they may have to move their company to India or another country.” Bajpayee sums up how U.S. immigration policy threatens to impede economic growth: “You risk getting deported while you are creating jobs.”
Sullivan’s article goes on to examine how other countries actively recruit foreign-born U.S. graduates, even as the U.S. prevents them from growing companies on our soil. The root problem is a familiar one: partisan gridlock. While President Obama supports an easy path to a green card for foreigners with master’s degrees or PhDs from U.S. universities, comprehensive reform remains stalled. And a proposal for a “start-up” visa, similar to one offered to foreign entrepreneurs in Canada, has met with stiff opposition. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley and venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz recognize that the looming deficit of highly skilled workers in science, technology, engineering, and math fields poses a real threat to the U.S. tech industry. And they believe immigration reform is part of the remedy.
Some staggering statistics underscore the urgency of the problem: 40 percent of all MIT graduate students are from other countries, and the U.S. government pays for 80 percent of their $250,000-per-student education costs. That is, before kicking them out of the country, presumably into the arms of countries like Canada, Chile, Germany, Australia, Singapore, and China, where they are seduced with easy visas and even bonuses. In a painful jab at the inadequacy of U.S. policy, Canada’s Immigration Minister Jason Kenny said of his country’s recruitment efforts, “We see the bright, young, international tech developers in the U.S. who are stuck on temporary visas as an immediate market, if you will, for this program.” What will it take for U.S. policymakers to recognize that incongruous treatment of foreign talent could seriously blunt the country’s competitive edge?