Video: End of an immigrant dream?

By George Lewis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/30/2006 7:54:07 PM ET 2006-03-31T00:54:07

In California's Silicon Valley, the superstars of the high-tech industry are all immigrants:

  • Pierre Omidyar, born in France, founded eBay
  • Andrew Grove, born in Hungary, helped start Intel
  • Sergey Brin, from Russia, co-founded Google

Siva Singaram, from India, would like to follow in their footsteps.

"Currently I've got an idea for a startup company," says Singaram. "It's in the field of Internet advertising."

But because he has no green card, he'll have to return to India to start his company. Singaram and his wife Sangeetha, expecting a baby in May, are here on temporary skilled workers visas. By law, only 65,000 people a year can get those visas and it's difficult for them to become permanent residents.

The same is true for foreign students studying high-tech subjects at American universities. When they complete their education here, many of them have to go home — taking their skills with them.

"It's creating a lot of brain drain for the U.S.," says University of Southern California engineering student Amit Desai. "It's creating a lot of brain drain for the U.S.," says University of Southern California engineering student Amit Desai. "Instead of just staying back here, hanging in here, [people] prefer to go back to their countries and start getting a job there."

At USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, named for an Italian immigrant, the dean, who hails from Greece, says the United States needs to keep the foreign graduates here.

"A lot of students who come here get educated and then start a startup company and they're very, very successful," says Yannis Yortsos.

But unions and other organizations representing high-tech workers oppose liberalizing the visa and green card regulations.

"Companies are given the opportunity to take advantage of the program and bring in workers at a lower cost, and that undermines and undercuts U.S. workers," says Ron Hira with the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

How wide should America open its door to skilled foreigners? It's a question with no easy answers as Congress continues its debate on immigration reform.

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