“Patent Pending: How Immigrants Are Reinventing The American Economy”

While this is not exactly breaking news, I am pleased to see how this trend is being documented in order to build an even stronger case for visa policy reform.  It’s an issue that unites key business and political leaders, including President Obama, as well as professional associations such as NAFSA:  Association of International Educators. 

This report, issued by The Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonprofit organization that “brings together a bipartisan group of mayors from across the country and business leaders from all sectors of the economy and all 50 states to raise awareness of the economic benefits of sensible immigration reform,” examines the contribution of foreign-born inventors to the American economy. From more efficient ways to purify seawater to metals that can be molded like plastic, the report highlights several immigrant inventors behind some of the most cutting-edge technologies. These foreign-born inventors are fueling patent awards at the top patent-producing universities, and their new innovations and new companies are advancing American industries and creating American jobs.  (Two co-chairs of The Partnership are Steven A. Ballmer, CEO,  Microsoft Corporation and Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor, New York City.)  
Key findings of the report include:

  • More than three out of every four patents at the top 10 patent-producing US universities (76%) had at least one foreign-born inventor.
  • More than half of all patents (54%) were awarded to the group of foreign inventors most likely to face visa hurdles: students, postdoctoral fellows, or staff researchers.
  • Foreign-born inventors played especially large roles in cutting-edge fields like semiconductor device manufacturing (87%), information technology (84%), pulse or digital communications (83%), pharmaceutical drugs or drug compounds (79%), and optics (77%).
  • The almost 1,500 patents awarded to these universities boasted inventors from 88 different countries.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

Support for student visa policy reform also comes from the most unlikely of places, namely, The White House.  In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama made two references to international students.  The first is that the US is “home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth.”  The second is about international students who end up competing against the US (my italics).

One last point about education.  Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens…  Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities.  But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us.  It makes no sense. 

One change, which appears to be a direct result of the President’s remarks, is a new multi-agency initiative called Study in the States , launched in September 2011 by the Department of Homeland Security “to enhance our nation’s economic, scientific and technological competitiveness by finding new, innovative ways to encourage the best and brightest international students to study and remain in the United States.”  (I discussed this in a previous post.) 

The fact of the matter is the US population is graying with a median age of 37 (2011).  That, combined with the lack of young Americans studying certain key subjects, means that the US desperately needs a certain percentage of international students to stay, work and emigrate. 

Ultimately, emigration is a personal issue.  Many international students, including those from Vietnam, choose to remain in the US for a whole host of reasons, including a lack of opportunity in their chosen field(s) at home, offers to good to refuse in America, the inability to find their niche, which some discover while doing summer internships, and love, among other reasons. 

The day will come, out of economic and therefore political necessity, when the student visa interview will focus exclusively on 1) the applicant’s status as a “bona fide student;” and 2) her/his ability to pay.  Whether or not students intend to return to their home countries after graduation will no longer enter into the equation.  This happens regardless:  they dutifully play the game of promising to return home, whether or not that is their true intention.  A policy change will simply make it easier for international students, especially those in certain fields, to emigrate, if they so desire, and will represent an official recognition of a longstanding reality. 


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