The only barrier stalling Arun Shanmugam's ascent in the corporate world is a small card that would proclaim him a permanent resident of the US. The green card, which isn't green in colour, would help him snag the next best opportunity, launch his own company, and enjoy homestead tax rebates. So, this year the Tampa software engineer joined a queue of more than 300,000 immigrants vying for the coveted card. But a severe backlog is forcing high-skilled workers to question their American dream.
Last week, a Kansas-based private, nonpartisan foundation released a study warning that America could face a sizable reverse brain drain unless the government eases visa restrictions, increases the quota and speeds up the process. The Kauffman Foundation said there are more than one million skilled immigrants, including doctors, engineers and scientists, competing for the approximately 120,120 green cards issued each year, with a 7% limit per country.
The uncertainty of the process and the imbalance in the demand and supply could trigger a trend of highly trained immigrants returning to their country and moving elsewhere. "It's the first time in American history that we are faced with the prospect of a reverse brain drain," said Vivek Wadhwa, Wertheim fellow with the Harvard Law School and a co-author of the study.
"There are so many business opportunities in Shanghai and Bangalore, why put up with all the (immigration) crap?"
Many of the green card applicants are on a six-year H-1 B visa. The non-immigrant work permit keeps them wedded to a single employer. Immigrants who have applied for a green card can continue working on an extended H-1 B visa until the card arrives. But they can't change employers, or start their own companies. Their wait time is open-ended, made longer by a Congress-mandated quota for the visas and severe backlogs in the system.
Frustrated with the system, in the last three to five years, 100,000 highly skilled Chinese and Indian immigrants have returned to their home countries, Wadhwa said.
In a fiercely competitive global economy, this is the worst time for such an exodus, experts say. "Our previous studies document that highly skilled workers accounted for one quarter of all successful high-tech start-ups in the last decade," said Robert Litan, vice-president of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation. "If we send a lot of these people back home, we will lose a disproportionate number of entrepreneurs."
And the ripple effects are already emerging in the Tampa Bay area. "It's a huge problem," said Ray Weadock, CEO and president of Persystent Technologies. "The guys in Washington don't think much and their initial reaction is this will impact Cisco and Microsoft."
But smaller companies take a bigger hit because they don't often have the capital to send jobs to where the labour is, Weadock said. Weadock's company, which employs Shanmugam, is toying with the idea of setting up a subsidiary in India.
Companies aren't the only ones chasing the labour market. Schools and universities are also jumping into the wagon. The population of international students in MBA programmes across the country continues to dwindle, said Bob Forsythe, dean of the College of Business at University of South Florida. "And the demand for American business schools to go deliver programmes in other countries have increased," he said.
Harvard University and Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management are among a growing number of schools that have a presence in India. At USF, Forsythe's team is negotiating a venture in Romania.
The visa problems here have encouraged governments worldwide to ease visa restrictions in their countries and nab the high-skilled workforce. "There's a lot of mention of Canada," said Chandra Mitchell, an immigration attorney with Tampa-based Neil F. Lewis.
Amar Nayegandhi, a USF graduate and a contract employee with the US Geological Survey, has been waiting for his green card since 2002. He may soon give up, he said. The long wait has cost him job opportunities, forced upon him a commuter marriage and restricted his economic mobility. His H1-B visa runs out in February, and even though he can extend it and continue awaiting the green card, he's contemplating leaving.
"I am asking myself if this is really worth it," he said.
Shanmugam of Persystent Technologies says he, too, will only wait for about a year before considering giving up his spot in the line and heading back to India. "This is not the only place to be anymore," he said. "You can find better opportunities everywhere."
Foreign nationals are contributing to one out of four of all the global patents filed in the US. One quarter of all tech companies nationwide and 52% of tech companies in the Silicon Valley were founded by immigrants.
More than one million skilled workers and their families are waiting for green cards. Hundreds of thousands of them may get frustrated with the waiting process that could be six to 10 years and leave the US, hurting the country’s competitiveness in a global economy.