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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tom Still: America educates foreign-born scientists -- then kicks them out to compete against us


By Tom Still
Ankit Agarwal is a two-time finalist in the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest and a biochemical engineer whose work promises to help doctors treat patients with slow-to-heal skin wounds. He's even started a Madison-based company, Imbed Biosciences, to commercialize his discoveries.

Too bad Wisconsin – and the United States – nearly lost him over a protracted and largely senseless immigration problem.

Agarwal, a native of India, was a post-doctoral researcher at the UW-Madison when he developed a way to use silver nanoparticles to dramatically cut infection rates in skin wounds. His struggle to obtain a specialized visa was featured in a June 2012 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group that is sounding the alarm immigration laws that prevent the best and brightest foreign-born students from staying in the United States.

It's an issue that ties directly to workforce and economic development in Wisconsin and, especially, its largest cities.

While Agarwal eventually received an "extraordinary ability" visa from the federal government, which is a specialized green card, it was not before paying about $12,000 in application and legal fees. The wait itself threatened his ability to stay in Wisconsin and the United States, even though he's precisely the kind of immigrant the nation should want to attract.

Similar roadblocks are thrown up tens of thousands of times each year in the United States, which annually graduates nearly 40,000 foreign-born students with master's or doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

Eric Schmidt, the former CEO and chairman of Google, summarized it best when he said: "Of all the crazy rules in our government, the craziest bar none is that we take the smartest people in the world, we bring them to America, we give then Ph.D.s in technical science, and we kick them out to go found great companies outside of America. This is madness."

It is madness that directly affects the American economy, which has historically depended on immigrants for labor – from manual to intellectual – and as a source of entrepreneurism. Immigrants founded Google, Intel, eBay, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo!, Hotmail, PayPal, U.S. Steel, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Pfizer and Procter and Gamble, to name a few examples. One quarter of American Nobel Prize winners since 1901 and 40 percent of the Ph.D scientists working today in the United States are foreign-born.

Three-quarters of all patents awarded to the nation's top 10 patent-producing universities in 2011 had at least one foreign inventor. During that same period, more than half of all patents (54 percent) were awarded to the group of foreign inventors most likely to face visa hurdles – students, postdoctoral fellows and staff researchers. Those findings were contained in "Patent pending: How immigrants are reinventing the American economy," which was published by The Partnership.

A July 18 report by the Brookings Institution showed employer requests for specialized visas for foreign-born technologists far exceeds the number of visas actually issued. More than 100 metropolitan areas, a list that included Milwaukee and Madison, accounted for 91 percent of the nation's employer requests in 2010-2011.

Aren't immigrants taking jobs from native-born citizens? Not in the case of scientists, engineers and technicians, who remain in short supply nationally due to decades of decline in the production of American-born students in those fields.

While American kids were majoring in finance or the social sciences, foreign-born students were competing to become scientists and engineers. Now that those foreign-born students are earning advanced degrees in U.S. universities, the immigration system is preventing most of them from staying – just as they're needed most.

The solutions include granting permanent residency ("green cards") to foreign students who earn graduate degrees in science and technical fields; creating a startup visa for foreign-born entrepreneurs who want to use their research to form companies; and remove caps on the H-1B temporary high-skilled visa. Also, cities such as Milwaukee can examine best practices in other metro areas that have attracted well-educated immigrants.

In Wisconsin, the Legislature could expand the existing Education Tax Credit so that employers could use it to hire people from outside Wisconsin – whether they're from Indiana or India – and help cover their education.

Other major countries have already eased their visa processes for foreign students and innovators. In a competitive economy that is increasingly global, it only makes sense for the United States and Wisconsin to do the same.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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