U.S. President Barack Obama’s immigration plan calling for a huge increase in visas for foreign science and engineering graduates will pose a huge challenge for China, India and Latin America: they will either have to do something to retain their best talents, or they will face the biggest brain drain in recent history.
The global race for talent is already under way. Canada, Australia, Singapore, Brazil and Chile have recently adopted measures to attract highly skilled scientists, engineers and high-tech entrepreneurs.
Now, if the United States — the world’s biggest economy — joins the race, the global competition for highly skilled professionals will be fiercer. Much like after Second World War, when the U.S. government lured Albert Einstein and other top European scientists, the United States will become a magnet for a new generation of the world’s best brains.
Under a bipartisan bill led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and known as the Immigration Innovation Act, the United States would eliminate restrictions on visas for workers with graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics from qualified U.S. universities, and would almost double existing quotas for other highly-skilled private sector workers.
The bill, which may become part of Obama’s comprehensive immigration reform plan, is very likely to pass, congressional sources say.
While Democrats and Republicans are still arguing over other parts of Obama’s immigration plan, which would give a path to legal status for up to 11 million undocumented residents, both parties agree on the need to dramatically increase the number of visas for foreign scientists to help make the U.S. economy more competitive.
"This is a big, big step forwards," says Vivek Wadhwa, a well-known innovation guru with Singularity University and author of The Immigrant Exodus, a book arguing that the United States is falling behind in innovation because of its failure to retain the scientists who graduate from its universities.
Right now, most U.S. visas are given based on family ties, rather than on professional skills. Only seven per cent of U.S. visas are given to foreigners based on their skills, compared with 25 per cent in Canada, 42 per cent in Australia, 58 per cent in Britain, 80 per cent in Switzerland and 81 per cent in South Korea, according to a recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy.
Under the Hatch bill, the number of highly skilled foreigners admitted into the United States could double to 280,000 from the current 140,000 a year, according to Wadhwa.
"The race for skilled immigrants is intensifying in today’s knowledge-based economy," Wadhwa told me. "In the past, it was all about manufacturing, and you needed workers. Now, it’s all about technology and innovation, and you need skilled scientists and engineers."
If the United States attracts more scientists and engineers, it will not only increase its world primacy in patent registrations, but it will reduce the need of U.S. multinationals to outsource many of their operations to China, India and Latin America, experts say.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.
—McClatchy Tribune Services