Lured by the prospect of climbing to the top of his field, New Delhi native Swaroop Ganguly came to the U.S. 10 years ago and earned a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 2005.
He became an expert in an emerging technology called spintronics, used to power semiconductors, and worked at several chip companies, including Freescale Semiconductor. But Ganguly, now 32, is moving back to India this summer.
Although he has been doing postdoctoral work at the University of Texas, he figures his prospects for research and professional development are probably better in his home country. "I feel quite excited about going back," he says.
Ganguly has already accepted a job as a professor of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. The position will pay a fraction of the salary he had been earning in the private sector—about $15,000 compared with $100,000—but it will offer considerably more job security and the freedom to do the exploratory research he wants to do.
"The real lure of being in the U.S. is to do really innovative work, but the space for that seems to be shrinking," he says. "The Indian government is putting a huge amount of funding into science and technology, so even if they can't pay high salaries, it's an attractive prospect."
Ganguly is one of a number of highly skilled immigrants preparing to leave the U.S. as the nation's economy slows. With the U.S. unemployment rate approaching double digits, job opportunities are diminishing and calls to restrict immigration have gotten louder. Those who favor tightening the rules argue that U.S. citizens should get first priority for jobs.
Cuts into tax revenues
But the issue is tricky when it comes to the most educated and skilled immigrants — people like Ganguly. When well-paid individuals leave the country, that cuts into already depleted tax revenues for state and local governments.
The departure of top talent in technology and science may also undercut the prospects for a recovery in the U.S., many economists say. These immigrants often start companies and come up with technological breakthroughs, creating new job opportunities for all.
"We benefit from a flow of really smart people coming here to work in our companies and start new ones," says David Hart, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., who co-authored a study on immigrant entrepreneurship released this month. "It's important that the U.S. remain a magnet for people who fuel innovation and growth."
The Obama Administration has said it will push for comprehensive immigration reform later this year, but it's unclear if any legislation will pass or how it would affect skilled immigrants. One unresolved issue is how to define a "skilled" immigrant.
While many politicians would support policies to attract the most educated and highly paid, there is more controversy over foreign workers who come into the U.S. on H-1B visas, which require only a bachelor's degree and, in many cases, modest salaries.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate immigration subcommittee, said in June that U.S. policy will aim to "encourage the world's best and brightest individuals to come to the U.S. and create the new technologies and businesses…but must discourage businesses from using our immigration laws as a means to obtain temporary and less expensive foreign labor."
Advocates for skilled immigrants emphasize the value they create and warn against developing overly restrictive policies.
Dr. Jan Vilcek, a professor of microbiology at New York University School of Medicine, defected from Czechoslovakia in 1964 and is now renowned in his field for treatments he developed for chronic illnesses such as Crohn's disease. He co-founded a New York-based nonprofit called the Vilcek Foundation to enhance the public profile of exceptional immigrants.
"Foreign-born entrepreneurs and scientists are a tremendous asset to the U.S. economy," Vilcek says. "It is tragic that bureaucratic obstacles are preventing more talented and motivated people from helping to get us out of the economic slump."
For now, economic woes — and to a lesser extent, immigration policies — are the most acute problem driving departures from the U.S.
A study by Duke University professor and Harvard researcher Vivek Wadhwa, for example, found that among Chinese nationals who emigrated to the U.S. and later returned home, 72 percent said they thought professional opportunities were better in China. Among Indians who returned home, 56 percent said the same of their country. Wadhwa estimates that as many as 200,000 skilled workers from India and China will go home over the next five years, compared with roughly 100,000 over the past 20 years.
"We're in a recession, and there is enough good talent now [in the U.S.], but long term, it will hurt like you won't believe," says Wadhwa, who is also a BusinessWeek.com columnist. "Losing critical talent means arming the U.S.'s competition. The next Google, Microsoft, or Apple could be launched in Shanghai or Bangalore."
Kapil, a 33-year-old software consultant for IBM in Silicon Valley, shares Vilcek's frustration. (Kapil asked that his last name not be used out of concern for his job.) He joined IBM in 2001 with the hope of gaining permanent residency in the U.S. so he could ultimately start his own company.
IBM filed an application for his green card for permanent residence in 2004, and he has yet to receive it. Due to limits that allow for just 9,800 green cards per year per country, the wait for people from India and China can be up to 10 years.
Kapil estimates that his five-year wait could stretch into 7 or 10. In the meantime, he remains on an H-1B visa tied to IBM, where he must keep the same position to remain in the green card queue.
He's earning six figures now, he says, but suspects he could earn more if he had the freedom to change jobs. "I'm not allowed to advance, and it's really frustrating," says Kapil. "At this point, I'm losing my patience."
Kapil is eager to found a startup. He has developed the technology for an online job-search engine that taps into social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. He says he is considering launching it from India. "Most likely, I am heading back," he says. "In a way, I feel cheated. I've contributed, paid taxes, and even picked up a California accent. But it's not enough."
Arun Kumar, 30, is also in the U.S. on an H-1B visa and is considering moving to Canada. Kumar, who lives just north of Philadelphia, works for a U.S. bank and is helping to develop a startup within the company. His employer, the name of which he asked not be used, put in his application for a green card last year.
Kumar realizes that it could take years for his application to move through the queue, and he's growing restless to start his own business. He has the capital to launch his product, an educational tool to help sixth- to eighth-graders learn math and science. But he doesn't want to do so in the U.S. because assuming a new job or even changing titles within his own company would nullify his existing green card application.
Kumar and his wife are now considering moving to Toronto, where they could more quickly become permanent residents.
"I feel restricted here," says Kumar. "I understand the U.S. has a responsibility to its citizens, and I understand its dilemma. But the country would be better off if it could isolate and identify skilled workers who want to come here and build things and welcome them in."
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