WASHINGTON -- A “reverse brain drain” is occurring in the American science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, but ideas to ease immigration laws are all over the map -- and a passable consensus from Congress seems unlikely to emerge soon in a deeply divided capital.
At a hearing Wednesday of a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee, legislators, academics and private sector leaders debated how to overhaul the immigration system to get qualified foreign nationals who earn advanced degrees at American universities to stay in the country to help the United States remain competitive globally.
It’s not an unfamiliar topic of discussion, as data show that foreign students are dramatically outpacing their American counterparts in the STEM fields. In 2009, half to two-thirds of all Ph.D.s in related fields and almost half of all engineering and computer science master’s degrees awarded by American colleges were earned by foreign students, according to Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Policy Enforcement.
At present, 140,000 employment visas can be awarded annually to foreigners seeking careers in the United States. Of that, each country can attain no more than 7 percent of the total number of visa holders.
Ideas for keeping more foreign nationals in the United States ranged from attaching green cards to advanced STEM degrees, increasing the number of employment visas available, and eliminating the annual visa cap. These loosened immigration ideas are similar to laws already in place in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom .
According to research  by the National Foundation for American Policy, based in Arlington, Va., a skilled Indian immigrant seeking a green card in the United States could wait up to 70 years to actually receive one. Indian and Chinese immigrants are far likelier than are their peers from other countries to earn advanced degrees in STEM fields in the United States. This disparity makes it incredibly difficult for students from those countries to stay in the United States to live and work. Instead, Lofgren said, they are forced back to their home countries, where they end up competing with American companies.
“Iceland -- a great country I’m sure -- has a population of about 300,000 people,” she said. “We have the same number of visas [available] for India with a population of 1.1 billion. So it’s no wonder this doesn’t work.”
Some of the more unusual ideas came from Vivek Wadhwa, executive-in-residence and adjunct professor at Duke University. Wadhwa, who testified before the committee, said he came to the United States in 1980 as a student and has been able to flourish in his adopted home, founding two software companies that created jobs for hundreds of American workers.
“We are out of touch,” Wadhwa said. “We are going to become a third-world country and they are going to become us.”
Wadhwa recommended offering temporary visas to foreigners who have bought homes meeting a certain price threshold, for example. He also talked about offering green cards to those who start companies that employ Americans, challenging the notion that immigrants force Americans out of jobs in their own country. “We need to do this for America, not the world,” he said.
The question remains whether Congress might take tangible action on such immigration reforms any time soon. A few pieces of legislation introduced this year might kick-start the discussion.
Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, is a co-sponsor of House Bill 3012 , the “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act,” which would eliminate the employment visa cap over a four-year period.
Also on the table is House Bill 2161 , or the “IDEA Act of 2011,” sponsored by Lofgren, which includes a slew of visa changes, including making it easier for immigrants who create businesses and employ Americans to stay in the country. It would also change existing language for those applying for a visa, which, as it stands, requires immigrants to pledge they do not intend to stay in the United States for a protracted period of time. This language is a small move in opening the discussion on immigration reform for STEM degree earners, she said.
In her testimony to the subcommittee, Darla Whitaker, senior vice president for worldwide human resources at Texas Instruments, said her company employs a huge number of foreign nationals, partially because the number of qualified American graduates in STEM fields is insufficient.
At TI, 55 percent of electrical engineers who graduated from American colleges or universities with a master’s degree, and 63 percent with a Ph.D., are foreign nationals.
“TI didn’t choose the pool of graduates; we recruit from it,” she said.
But Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration, told the subcommittee that there is little evidence that America’s educational pipeline produces too few domestic students able and willing to pursue a STEM career.
He also said that offering green cards as part of an advanced degree package is setting America up for disaster.
“We need to set up a selectivity mechanism,” he said. “Just bringing in more immigrants isn’t going to necessarily produce great results.”
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that he couldn’t recommend specific policy, but that certain rules for eligibility had to be put in place to avoid major abuses by colleges and universities.
He advocated for strict rules, including barring institutions from hiring commissioned agencies to recruit foreign students, and limiting how much institutions can force foreign students to pay in tuition.
Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, also raised concerns to the committee about overlooking American students in the process of easing immigration for foreign nationals benefiting from an American education. “Are we doing enough to make sure qualified Americans are being considered for jobs as a country?” he said.
Smith voiced similar concerns. He cautioned against creating a “visa pot of gold” for colleges and universities whose sole motivation is to attract students just to rake in tuition money.
But Lofgren said that the system is broken, and that it's time to do something to bring about substantive change.
“Our system is out of green cards for the next 10 to 70 years,” she said. “You will have to wait a long time if you want to make a life here. The result has been a reverse brain drain. And we have reason to fear it.”