Menus Subscribe Search

Immigration and the Missing Ph.D.s

• April 07, 2010 • 3:41 PM

Post 9/11, the United States has been chasing foreign-born scholars away, much to the nation’s detriment.

Jim Rogers echoed a common complaint of the science and engineering community last week when he tied the future of American competitiveness in a high-tech, clean economy to a seemingly unlikely issue — immigration reform.

“Every person in this country who graduates with a Ph.D. ought to have a visa stapled to that Ph.D.,” the charismatic Southern CEO of Duke Energy told a room full of scientists and energy policy wonks. Many heads nodded in assent. If the crowd wasn’t so buttoned-down, you might have heard an “Amen!” or two.

These are people for whom “immigration reform” has little to do with legalizing migrant workers from Mexico. Rogers was talking about highly trained experts, Indian engineers and Chinese chemists, foreigners who receive their advanced education here but then take that know-how elsewhere precisely because we require them to.

According to 2005 data, foreigners earned 34.7 percent of the science doctorates from American universities and 63.1 percent of the Ph.D.s in engineering. Those numbers suggest two problems: The domestic supply of “STEM” students is not what it should be, and the foreign supply is so deep the U.S. has been foolish not to better exploit it for our own high-tech work force.

As for the latter challenge, immigration roadblocks loom on both ends of the system, for students trying to enter the U.S. to study, and for graduates who would then like to then stay and work. Quotas on skilled-worker visas have long capped the size of the second group. But just getting into the U.S. to study became much harder after Sept. 11 and the passage of the Patriot Act.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]

“Students were considered to be a group of individuals that were more likely to raise terrorist concerns than other categories,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A couple of the Sept. 11 hijackers had misused student visas. “But there was also a more general worry about [whether] foreign students going to acquire knowledge that could be used against the U.S.?”

The Council of Graduate Schools found that foreign applications dropped 28 percent from 2003 to 2004 as a direct result of the newly onerous system. Every applicant was now required to have a face-to-face interview with a consular official, and the process was particularly cumbersome for students in fields potentially tied to national security, like science and engineering.

Foreign applications continued to drop after decades of steady growth, and they’ve only recently begun to turn around. In the interim, while the U.S. was discouraging foreign students, other countries with newly unveiled graduate programs were doing the opposite.

“Everyone in every advanced industrial society has caught on to the American strategy,” said Debra Stewart, president of the CGS. In other words: attract the best from around the world. “That worked at a time when nobody else had that strategy. But now, wherever you look around world, Germany, Canada, Australia, all of these countries are now basically implementing the American plan.”

American immigration policies and the rise of competitive foreign graduate programs have combined to create exactly the situation people like Rogers fear — one where the U.S. isn’t equipped to keep the lead on science and technology just as a sea change in the global economy is looming.

As one solution, the CGS has lobbied for the creation of a new visa category specifically for graduate students in the STEM disciplines that would also include a pathway to permanent residency. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham have included such a provision — identical to Roger’s suggestion — in the initial outline for the comprehensive immigration reform legislation they have been negotiating.

“It makes no sense,” the senators wrote in The Washington Post, “to educate the world’s future inventors and entrepreneurs and then force them to leave when they are able to contribute to our economy.”

The broader piece of legislation, however, faces long odds given that its headlining provisions deal not with future inventors and entrepreneurs, but illegal immigrants accused of draining American jobs and social services. Scientists and engineers, then, may have to find a separate path for their slice of reform, one that will undoubtedly draw little attention as the immigration debate ratchets up.

No one will rally this summer on the national mall for Indian engineers, or turn up on cable TV to rail against Japanese physicists winning Nobel Prizes in American labs.

“If you talk to tech companies, Google, Microsoft, Intel, this is the dilemma they always face in their lobbying,” Alden said. “‘Should we be part of the lobby for comprehensive immigration reform? Or should we split away and push for a resolution of our own issues, because they’re a lot more popular than legalizing 11 million immigrants, and why do we want to associate ourselves with that?’”

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 1 • 4:00 PM

The Gaps in Federal Law That Are Making It Easy for Lenders to Sue Soldiers

Courts are required to appoint attorneys for service members if they are sued and can’t appear. But the law says little about what those lawyers must do. Some companies have taken advantage.


August 1 • 2:22 PM

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.


August 1 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Health Insurance Exchange Remains Surprisingly Active

New federal data, obtained by ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act, shows nearly one million insurance transactions since mid-April.



August 1 • 6:00 AM

The Idea of Racial Hierarchy Remains Entrenched in Americans’ Psyches

New research finds white faces are most closely associated with positive thoughts and feelings.


August 1 • 4:00 AM

How and Why Does the Social Become Biological?

To get closer to an answer, it’s helpful to look at two things we’ve taught ourselves over time: reading and math.



July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.