Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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