Immigration Reform

A bipartisan Senate group, the Gang of 8, unveiled a broad overhaul of the U.S. immigration laws yesterday, which could drastically rewrite the system for awarding visas to live in the U.S., giving preference based on skills and economic needs.

You may be asking why does this matter to our community? My answer is, a lot. The honest truth is that we are just not producing enough engineer and scientists to meet the growing needs of our community. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs are expected to grow by 17 percent during the decade ending in 2018, compared to just 9.8 percent-growth in non-STEM jobs. At the current pace, the U.S. won’t be able to produce enough workers to fill the jobs. In the U.S. in 2008, just four percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded were in engineering, in China, 31 percent of all bachelor’s degrees were in engineering and throughout all of Asia the percentage was 19 percent. Foreign enrolment in U.S. graduate school programs is growing fast, last year grew by 9%.

Right now we are fueling a brain drain by providing education and developing a highly skilled workforce, only to send those talented individuals away. Instead we should try to attract and retain top talent from other countries. The proposed senate legislation includes a wide range of new work-visa programs that a Senate aide said would increase the number of skilled and employment-based visas. The bill would eliminate caps on the number of visas for immigrants with “extraordinary ability” in scientific fields, as well as for multinational executives and those with doctoral degrees. Also foreigners who graduate from American universities with advanced degrees in science, math, technology and engineering would be eligible for green cards. And a start-up visa program would be available for foreigners who want to come to the U.S. to start a company. But we can’t count our chickens before they are hatched. The proposed Senate bill has a projected price tag of $17 billion over a decade. Senate aids say that fees and fines should cover those expenses (most of which goes to border security), also the potential economic benefit from increased taxes should be taken into consideration. We will see how conservatives receive the bill, the current bi-partisan support is promising.

(side note)
I am hopeful that this legislation will go through. Those of you who know me, also probably know Karel Schaepman. You also may know Karl’s situation or have just noticed that he is not around anymore. Because of a snafu, Karel lost his work visa, he has been out of work and out of the country for well over a year. Karel is one of the hardest and most dedicated members of our community. He moved here to go to grad school and then was accepted into Abbott’s, extremely exclusive, management training program. Karel has been waiting for his green card, but recently had to sell his condo in Chicago. It looks like our community will loose one of its most promising young leaders. I don’t know if the Gang of 8’s reforms would help Karel out at all, but we can’t afford to loose community members like him.
(end side note)

Another way we can retain top talent is to invest heavily into R&D, we have always been a nation of innovators and explorers. But for the past few years our R&D investment has been flat, where as other countries are rapidly expanding their R&D investment, attracting top research talent. The graph below from AAAS provides a comparison of R&D investment by country.

Investing in R&D at our universities provides positions in labs, and innovation to fuel companies. Funding research projects in universities will help retain researchers who want to stay in the academic world.

Immigration is the short term answer and we need to attract and retain top talent to keep our position as the leader in innovation. But we also need to address the root of the problem and develop a long-term solution is to increase domestic enrolment in STEM based degrees and positions. This will be a topic of a future post, focusing on the work at the iBIO Institute EDUCATE Center and increasing student interest in the STEM field.

How does immigration reform impact your organization? This is a conversation, not an editorial. Did I forget something, get it wrong or do you agree? Please Comment, Like, Re-Tweet and Share.

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