Land of Opportunity...

...For many skilled immigrants, it's not here, it's home

As a girl growing up in Mumbai, Niloufer Bustani viewed the United States the way generations of ambitious youngsters always have, as the pinnacle of opportunity for those who want to make their mark on the world. Now, she's not so sure.

After earning a master's degree at the University of Texas at Dallas and working in this country on a temporary visa for several years, the 29-year-old computer engineer applied for legal permanent residence in 2005. Because of processing backlogs and visa quotas, it could take a decade for her to get her green card, and in the meantime, she can't change jobs or take a promotion without getting sent to the end of the visa queue.

"I've been very productive all these years," Bustani says. "My employer thinks I'm a key player at the company, but they can't do anything because it's just the system. Once you're in the system, you're stuck."

Some 1 million skilled immigrants and their family members are waiting in line for visas that number only 120,120 per year, setting the stage for a "reverse brain drain" as professionals from booming economies in countries such as India and China return home, says a study released last week by the Kansas-based Kauffman Foundation and conducted by researchers from Duke, New York University and Harvard.

Bustani loves Dallas, and her 4-year-old daughter was born here. Yet, as India's technology sectors blossom and her childhood friends secure prestigious positions in places such as Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore, she and her husband wonder if they should give up on their applications and return home. The authors of the study, titled "Intellectual Property, the Immigration Backlog, and a Reverse Brain-Drain," warn that the United States' global competitiveness will suffer if the current system isn't altered.

In the past three to five years, some 100,000 highly trained Chinese and Indian workers have returned to their home countries, says Vivek Wadhwa, a Harvard fellow and Duke researcher who contributed to the report. By imbuing smart, hard-working foreigners with America's innovation and creativity but not allowing them to stay here, he says, the U.S. is training its future competitors. "Basically, we've taught them the secret sauce, and now we're telling them to go back," he says. "It's stupid."

Bustani, raised in a middle-class Indian family, says that at least a quarter of her graduating class at an esteemed Mumbai university went on to study and work in the United States. A number of them are now employed at Microsoft or other large companies. Bustani arrived at UTD in 1999 to study computer science with an emphasis on networks and telecommunications. Her husband, a childhood friend from India, had already moved to Dallas and now holds a master's degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Arlington, as well as an additional master's in marketing research. Since she finished school and applied for permanent residence first, the family's status depends on her application. As part of the approval process, employers must demonstrate that they can't easily find an American with comparable skills and that they're paying the immigrant worker the same they would pay a citizen.

In addition to processing delays, the reasons for the backlog include quotas that limit the number of visas that can be issued to immigrants from the major sending countries such as India and China to fewer than 10,000 per year. This means longer waits for people from those countries, which is particularly problematic given the fact that Chinese and Indian immigrants top the list of foreign entrepreneurs and inventors. According to the researchers, one in four engineering and technology companies founded in the United States between 1995 and 2005 were started by immigrants, and last year, foreign nationals contributed to more than half of the international patents filed by large American corporations. Indian immigrants started more companies than the next four groups combined, and the largest group of foreign inventors hailed from China. (Texas is home to the country's fourth-highest number of Chinese and Indian inventors.)

"The solution is very simple," Wadhwa says. "We're talking about removing the per-country cap and doubling the skilled worker quota. You'd fix the problem within a short period of time."

After eight years in the United States, Bustani is reluctant to go back to India. "There are things you can do here that you can't do there," she says. "My daughter's doing ballet right now—I don't think I ever had the opportunity to do that sort of thing." When she goes home to visit, Bustani notices that Indian children are so pressured to perform academically that there's little time for after-school sports or creative endeavors like arts and crafts. "Kids know, like, 20 poems, they know their multiplication tables in first grade, they have to come home and do a lot of homework," she says. "We don't want to put that much pressure on our daughter." She also points out that in the years she's been working for a local telecommunications software company, she's paid around $25,000 into Social Security and Medicare that she'd essentially be throwing away if she left.

When in July the U.S. government announced that it would not accept any more employment visa applications for the year, sending Bustani into yet another backlog limbo, her frustration reached a high point. She joined an immigrant advocacy group called Immigration Voice and bought a plane ticket to Washington, D.C., to attend a September 18 rally demanding reforms. Advocacy groups hope Congress will pass changes to the visa rules before the presidential elections next year.

"If they don't pass something this year, I'm really going to think about leaving more seriously than I have before," Bustani says. "I might put out my résumé and see what happens."

 
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