US mistreat immigrants at its own peril

So why do you think the experience of skilled immigrants today is so different than yours was?

Because when I applied for my green card, there was no backlog, there was no delay in visa processing. I simply had to go through the labor certification process, which showed that I wasn’t taking away the job of an American, and then immediately I got my green card. The whole process was as easy as could be. Today, the problem is that, first of all, there are no H1B visas for people to come here and work for American companies. And then, once you start the process for a green card, there are no green cards available. The line for green cards is so long that if you’re Indian or Chinese, it takes decades.

What happens now is that you decide that you want to become a permanent resident, and your company files for you, and it takes five years, ten years, 15 years, sometimes 17 or 20 years while you’re just stuck in limbo, waiting for that green card. The problem is that, once you have started the process of a green card and you’ve done the labor certification, which means that you’ve now proven that you’re not taking away the job of an American, you’re stuck in that same job. You can’t change jobs. In those five, 10 or 15 years, you can’t go from being a program analyst to being a project manager. You can’t go from being a writer to an editor. You can’t change jobs; you’re stuck in the same grunt job that you had when you started the process, so people waste their lives in the same tedious jobs that they had before.

One of the things you point out in your book is that skilled immigrants play a huge role in the U.S. economy. I wonder if you could please outline their contributions to job growth and intellectual capital formation.

After I became an academic, one of the first research projects I did was to document the contribution of skilled immigrants. I had a hunch that there were many other people like me who were making a big contribution to U.S. competitiveness. The first thing I did was to look at all the research that had been done on the subject. I learned that AnnaLee Saxenian, who was then the dean of the School of Information at Berkeley, had documented that in the 1980s, a quarter of all the startups in Silicon Valley were founded by Indian and Chinese immigrants. It was amazing research. I contacted her, and I said, “Professor Saxenian, what’s the latest on this?” She said that her research was now a decade old and no one had updated it. Her belief was that the numbers had increased dramatically. A lot of anecdotal evidence indicated that immigrant entrepreneurship had increased quite significantly, but there was no up-to-date research. I said, “Would you like to work with me on this research?” And she said, “Absolutely, I’d love to work with you on it.” Then we spent several months revising her work — we used the same methodology, the same data sets, and updated the research.

We were both shocked at what we found — the trend that had started in Silicon Valley had become a nationwide phenomenon. From 1995 to 2005, a quarter of all the startups in America were founded by immigrants, by people like me…. And the proportion [in] Silicon Valley had increased to 52%. We also found that during the days of the greatest economic growth in recent U.S. history, the tech boom, 52% of the startups in America, the most innovative land in the world, were founded by immigrants. Fifty-two percent — that was just mind-blowing.

Why and how did the immigrant startup machine begin to stall? What were the main reasons?

Here’s what happened after we published our research. The research made headline news — it was featured everywhere. And then I started getting e-mails from all over the world. Now I’d become a guru on immigration. People started writing to me to tell me their problems. Even my students started talking to me about their problems. And I started to realize that there’s something wrong here, and that the new crop of immigrants is not able to do what I was able to do, which means join the workforce, become an American and become an entrepreneur when the time was right. They couldn’t do what I had been able to do. So I went back to Anna and I said, “Anna, what do you know about the backlog of immigrants?” And she didn’t know anything, so we teamed up with a professor from New York University, Guillermina Jasso, and we decided to now look into what had happened since the late 1990s, and [with] the backlog. Jasso was an ex-commissioner for the immigration department, and she tried getting data on the backlog. She couldn’t get it, so we decided to create our own methodology for estimating the backlog of immigrants waiting for green cards.

Again, we were stunned at what we learned — that there were one million skilled immigrants and their families waiting for green cards. As of October 26, I believe, in 2006, there were a million skilled immigrants in America waiting for a green card who were stuck in limbo. Everyone was talking about unskilled immigrants, the undocumented or illegal workers, as some segments of America call them. There was a lot of talk about the illegals, but no one was talking about the legal skilled immigrants who were stuck waiting for green cards. I looked at the data, interviewed many people, and I predicted that there would be a massive reverse brain drain of talent. We titled the paper, “Intellectual Property, the Immigration Backlog, and a Reverse Brain Drain.” The title “reverse brain drain” created a lot of controversy. My co-authors felt uncomfortable with it because it was such a radical title to use in an academic paper. But they knew there was a problem, so they agreed to leave it the way it was.

When we published that paper, it created a major controversy because other academics started scorning the concept of a reverse brain drain. In emails I received and discussions in academic groups, people said, “This is ridiculous. The U.S. has never had a brain drain. Brain drain is a European phenomenon. It’s an Indian phenomenon. It’s a Chinese phenomenon. It’s not an American thing. We don’t have brain drain in America.” Everyone laughed at it when that paper first came out. Today, no one doubts it. Almost every major publication has written about it. The Indian press, the Chinese press, the Brazilian press, everyone is talking about the reverse brain drain. It’s widely established that what we predicted is happening, that there’s a massive reverse brain drain of talent right now from the U.S. to other countries.

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