In April, about 8,000 petitioners sought H-1B visas from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But a year earlier, that number stood at more than twice that — about 16,500. And in 2009, requests for H-1B visas topped 45,000, almost six times this year’s figures.
Clearly, the once-coveted paperwork that enables skilled non-citizens to work legally in the U.S. is not the prize it once was. What’s happened?
According to a study of Indian and Chinese tech entrepreneurs who once worked in the States, opportunities abound in their homelands and seem more favorable to them than do working conditions in the U.S.
“The best and the brightest used to flock here from all over the world because there were no opportunities for them elsewhere,” says Vivek Wadhwa, visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information, a co-author of the study. “But IT grads can now get better jobs at home in India or China. They may make a little less money, but they have a higher quality of life.”
As a result, he says, not only can’t U.S. tech firms fill jobs, but America is losing talent and companies.
“Salaries are shooting through the roof in Silicon Valley,” he says, “which some say is a good thing. But that makes building a company here so much more expensive that it’s now more economical for U.S. tech firms to outsource or even build their companies in Delhi or Shanghai.”
Wadhwa says he is “absolutely sounding a warning” that something needs to be done—and quickly.
Wadhwa’s co-author—AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information—agrees that more immigrants are returning home than in the past. “But this is not about visas. Only 9% of the survey respondents ranked visa issues as important reasons for returning home,” she says, “whereas a majority ranked the availability of economic opportunities, access to local markets, and family ties as important reasons.”
Unlike her co-author, Saxenian believes the U.S. and emerging economies like China and India benefit from what she calls “brain circulation.”
“These returnees remain well-connected to the U.S.,” she explains. “They travel back often, share information about markets and technology, collaborate, and co-invest with U.S. businesses. They also create new markets and complementary technologies.”
But what Saxenian calls “brain circulation,” Wadhwa calls “brain hemorrhage.”
“When I came to America in 1980, it took me 18 months to get a green card,” he recalls. “Now, because of flawed immigration policies and the visa backlog, it could take my students 20-30 years to get a green card after they graduate. I have no doubt that if we fix the backlog, far fewer will return home.”
His “quick fix” recommendation is to retain the highly educated, legal immigrants already in the U.S. by accelerating the process of giving them the green cards they require to live and work here permanently.
Saxenian supports this measure, but doesn’t believe it will halt the return of entrepreneurs seeking to return to their fast-growing home economies. “They know that there is great wealth to be made in China and India today.”
Paul Hyman was editor-in-chief of several hi-tech publications at CMP Media, including Electronic Buyers’ News.