Mountain View, California: Google is based here in Silicon Valley, but Sanjay G. Mavinkurve is not. Mavin-kurve, a 28-year-old Indian immigrant who helped lay the foundation for Facebook while a student at Harvard, instead works out of a Google sales office in Toronto. He has a visa to work in the US, but his wife, Samvita Padukone, also born in India, does not. So he moved to Canada.
Just more than half the companies founded in Silicon Valley from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s had founders born abroad, according to Vivek Wadhwa, an immigration scholar working at Duke and Harvard.
The foreign-born elite includes Andrew S. Grove, the Hungarian-born co-founder of Intel; Jerry Yang, the Chinese-born co-founder of Yahoo; and Google’s Russian-born co-founder, Sergey Brin. But technology executives say that byzantine and increasingly restrictive visa and immigration rules have imperilled their ability to hire and retain more of the world’s best engineers.
Mavinkurve’s case exemplifies how immigration policies can chase away a potential entrepreneur who aspires to create wealth and jobs here and highlights the technology industry’s argument that the US will struggle to compete if it cannot more easily hire foreign-born engineers. “We are watching the decline and fall of the United States as an economic power—not hypothetically, but as we speak,” said Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of Intel.
Barrett blames a slouching education system that cannot be easily fixed, but he says a stopgap measure would be to let companies hire more foreign engineers.
“With a snap of the fingers, you can say, ‘I’m going to make it such that those smart kids—and as many of them as want to—can stay in the United States.’ They’re here today, they’re graduating today—and they’re going home today.”
The idea is opposed by staunch foes of liberalized immigration and by advocates for US-born engineers. “There are probably two billion people in the world who would like to live in California and work, but not everyone in the world can live here,” said Kim Berry, an engineer who operates a nonprofit advocacy group for US-born technologists. “There are plenty of Americans to do these jobs.”
The debate has only sharpened as the country’s economic downturn has deepened. Advocates for US-born workers are criticizing companies that lay off employees even as they retain engineers living here on visas. But the technology industry counters that innovations from highly skilled workers are central to the country’s long-term growth.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES