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US to battle reverse brain drain on paucity of visas

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August 23, 2007 10:29 IST

The US is facing the prospect of a massive reverse brain drain with an estimated backlog of 1 million highly skilled legal immigrants in the queue for LPR (Legal Permanent Resident) status, against a total yearly allotment of just over 120,000 visas. At least 30 per cent of those in the immigration limbo are estimated to be Indians.

A new report released on Wednesday, which is the third part of a study titled 'Intellectual Property, the Immigration Backlog, and a Reverse Brain-Drain - America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs', concludes that many highly skilled visa applicants waiting in the green card-queue for years, are getting depressed and discouraged and returning home to countries like India and China where economies are booming and their skills are in high demand.

The study, released by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, has been conducted by Vivek Wadhwa of the Harvard Law School, along with Guillermina Jasso of New York University. Noted Harvard economist Richard Freeman and other noted academics were also associated with the study.

The study says that at the end of fiscal 2006, there were about half-a-million employment-based applicants awaiting LPR status in the US and more than half-a-million family members.

"These numbers suggest that what has been viewed as a visa processing problem is essentially more of a visa number problem. The approximately 120,000 available visas are no match when you look at the million individuals in the queue," Wadhwa, founder of Relativity Technologies, and an adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, said.

He said that the immigration debate in the US has focused more on the plight of the estimated 12 million illegal and unskilled workers.

"When you consider that there is a (total) yearly limit of 120,000 visas that can be granted to skilled immigrants and a limit of 7 per cent per country, we have the recipe for a crisis. There is evidence that many Indians and Chinese are already beginning to return home," Wadhwa said. It is notable that less than 10,000 visas are allotted annually for skilled workers in key immigrant categories.

A lose-lose situation will develop for the US if the reverse brain drain continues as a result of the visa backlog.

"First, we lose critical talent that is helping the US compete globally, and second, they become our potential competitors. We brought hundreds of thousands of workers to the US on temporary visas, trained them in our technology and market and now we are forcing them to leave - just when they have become even more valuable," the report notes.

Research conducted by Wadhwa and his team had documented that immigrants had founded half of the technology and engineering companies started in Silicon Valley from 1995-2005 and a quarter of those started in the US. Indian and Chinese immigrants were contributing significantly to US global patent build-ups.

World Intellectual Property Organization data indicates that in 2006, foreign nationals residing in the US were inventors or co-inventors of one in four US patent applications - a more than threefold increase over their proportion in 1998.

The report adds: "The US benefits from having foreign-born innovators create their ideas in the country. Their departures would be detrimental to US economic well-being. It behoves the country to consider how we might adjust policies to reduce the immigration backlog, encourage innovative foreign minds to remain in the country, and entice new innovators to come."

Even changing jobs in the middle of the process would require applicants to start green card petitioning all over again, putting them back at the end of the queue, and another wait for 6 years to 10 years.

"I have been in this process for the last four years, and now hope for some reform in the system so that it wouldn't take long and I can work to my full potential," says Ronnie Gandhoke, an anaesthesiologist from Gallup, New Mexico, in a testimonial to Immigration Voice, a group upholding the rights of those seeking permanent residency in the US.

Ravi Menon in Chennai