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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.

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“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.

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