Duke University Presents ... an Outflow of Talent: Nativism and the US Reverse Brain Drain

Article excerpt

As the world hurtles headlong into the deepest global recession since the Great Depression, the controversial cultural and economic tensions that have always existed around the sensitive topics of immigration and immigration policy are again coming to the surface in the United States. A land of immigrants, religious outcasts, and refugees fleeing wars, poverty, starvation, and oppression abroad, the United States has long been viewed as the most welcoming country in the world. Immigrants always believed that their children would have a chance at a more prosperous life than the one their parents led--the ultimate American Dream.

Today the political clouds of nativism are swirling in Washington, DC. President Obama and the US Congress, reacting to the ongoing political backlash against financial institutions, have passed a bill restricting US financial companies from hiring foreign nationals on H-1B visas. These visas are the most common type of employment permits for foreigners and have traditionally been a pathway to full citizenship. Before the ink on the bill had dried, the country's largest financial institution, Bank of America, announced it would rescind job offers from foreign MBA students. The nativist logic is clear: with US unemployment heading towards 10 percent and perhaps beyond, nativists question why US companies hire foreigners to perform jobs that out-of-work Americans could perform.

I personally have experienced the building xenophobia. Articles that I have published explaining the economic benefits of open doors immigration policies have created enormous backlash. I have received overtly threatening emails and hundreds of unpleasant messages telling me, in no uncertain terms, that skilled immigrants are no longer welcome here. I have received arguments that are familiar derivations of the nativist logic. Xenophobes claim that immigrants on H-1B visas are paid less than comparable American workers and depress wages. Others argue that immigrants crowd out Americans in similar positions, causing US-born students to lose interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math ("STEM") fields and to stop seeking education and employment in those critical areas. They add that immigrants filing for patents are displacing Americans who might have filed for patents but could not get good science-related jobs.

The xenophobic tide could not have come at a more inopportune time. Even before the nativist sentiment emerged, growing numbers of talented immigrants had been abandoning lives in the United States to return to their homelands. They returned due to growing perceptions that brighter economic futures and greater chances for career and professional advancement lay abroad. With America no longer having the huge economic advantage it once had, other factors are coming more into play, such as the inconvenience of current restrictive visa policies and the anxiety associated with living far from friends and family in an unfamiliar culture. The United States is experiencing a brain drain for the first time in its history, yet its leaders do not appear to be aware of this. The ramifications of this brain drain are critical and will belong-lasting.

The current generation of foreign students matriculating at US universities--some of the students on which the United States currently relies to provide scientific manpower for critical research and development efforts in a slew of science and technology fields--will likely return home faster and in greater numbers than any generation of foreign students in recent decades, according to recent research completed by my group. This exodus will also expand to other fields as diverse as finance and agriculture and impact a large set of industries.

Furthermore, the new visa restrictions and the message they carry come at precisely the time when many highly educated and skilled non-US citizens are already losing their jobs due to the economic difficulties. …