Career: Career Consultant | Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis and Strategic Pricing Manager | Elsevier | St. Louis, Missouri, USA
The United States is Losing Ground in the Battle for Highly Skilled Foreign Talent
On April 23, 2010, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a controversial immigration bill (SB 1070) into law, ignoring criticism from President Obama who described it as “misguided.” The legislation, which requires immigrants to carry their alien registration documents at all times and requires police to question people if there is reason to suspect that they’re in the United States illegally, sparked nationwide debates, protests and calls to boycott the state.
As globalization and increasing international demand for skilled professionals create incentives for [highly skilled immigrants] to migrate to other countries, the absence of a policy that allows easy employment- linked permanent residence status in the United States puts the country at a significant disadvantage in the battle for talent.
This law may be aimed at identifying, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants, but for legal residents who will be pulled over based on the color of their skin or their accent, it makes life in the “immigration melting pot” even more threatening and difficult.
Clearly, there are two categories of immigrant: legal and illegal. Legal immigrants are divided into eight different categories, including family-based, employment-based, diversity-based and refugee immigrants. While family-based immigrants comprise the majority of cases every year, employment-based immigration is a crucial element of this system and for U.S. society more broadly. It has long been recognized that highly skilled immigrants make major contributions to the U.S. economy. But few may know how difficult it is for a foreign skilled worker to get legal employment-based permanent residency in this country.
Ample evidence suggests that foreign-born highly skilled professionals such as scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are one of America’s greatest competitive advantages. According to data collected by the National Academy of Sciences, since 1990 more than half of the U.S. Nobel laureates in the sciences were foreign born and about 37 percent received their education abroad. In the last 15 years, foreign nationals have started 25 percent of U.S. venture capital-backed public companies, adding significant value to the American economy. However, the complexity and arbitrary caps prevent flexibility in the employment-based immigration system, and this creates disincentives for employers and workers, which undermine U.S. companies’ competitive advantages in the battle for global talent.
The current preference system establishes an annual cap of 140,000 employment-based visas in five categories. The 140,000 include not only the worker, but his or her foreign-born spouse and children. The first preference category consists of priority workers who have “extraordinary ability,” or who are “outstanding professors and researchers” or “certain multinational executives and managers”; the second consists of professionals holding advanced degrees and persons with exceptional ability; and the third preference consists of professionals, skilled workers and other workers. The fourth category consists of special immigrants such as religious workers, and the fifth preference consists of the immigrant investor category. Highly skilled foreign applicants usually fall into the first- and second-preference categories.
In addition, no country of origin can account for more than 7 percent of the annual cap in any of these categories. For example, every year there are only 2,802 slots available for nationals of a particular country under the second preference (advanced degree holder with exceptional ability). This puts a lot of pressure on applicants from countries with large populations and creates a huge waiting list in the tens of thousands, which could mean 5 to 10 years of delay in getting employment-based permanent residency. The enormous backlogs and wait times send a strong signal to many international students and other outstanding individuals that America may not be the place to build your career or raise your family.
As a foreign national and a recent immigrant to this country pursuing my master’s degree at Washington University, I have witnessed an increasing trend for foreign-born talent, fresh graduates and seasoned professionals to seek opportunities outside of the United States. The current employment-based immigration system has shut the door to many of them, turning the country into a hostile, rather than a promised land. As globalization and increasing international demand for skilled professionals create incentives for them to migrate to other countries, the absence of a policy that allows easy employment-linked permanent residence status in the United States puts the country at a significant disadvantage in the battle for talent.
The federal government needs to act quickly to address the illegal immigration issue as President Obama has suggested. The American public and Congressional leaders also need to pay more attention to the infamous employment-based immigration policies. The United States has long been a huge magnet to world-class talent, but the immigration system needs to be fixed to sustain this reputation. If the United States adopts a talent-oriented immigration system, it will encourage the flow of labor and knowledge, stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship, and create jobs in the United States. Perhaps even more importantly, it will ultimately benefit the global society facing so many daunting challenges.