Author: Manashree Sanjay Malpe
In May 1979, towards the end of the cold war, a Jewish family immigrated to the United States with their 6-year-old son. They got lucky, they were amongst the last batch of people ‘allowed’1 to exit the USSR for another decade. In September 1998 the son, Sergey Brin, co-founded Google, the popular search engine and is now one of the richest people in the world. Alphabet, the parent company of Google now employs close to 100,000 people.The most recent presidential election of the United States saw an increase in anti-immigration policies like travel ban, refusal to accept refugees, opposition to H-1B visa program, and phasing out DACA. In response to these policies, Sergey Brin noted the stark contrasts between the two periods in a speech in 2017, “It was a dire period, the cold war, as some people remember it. It was under the threat of nuclear annihilation. And even then, the US had the courage to take me and my family in as refugees.”
Sergey Brin might be an outlier, but he is not the only one. According to a 2011 report by the Partnership for New American Economy, 18 percent of the companies in the Forbes 500 list were founded by immigrants. As per a 2017 study by the Center for American Entrepreneurship, 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies are co-founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. These companies have headquarters in 33 states and employ 12.8 million people worldwide as of 2016. They also accounted for $5.3 trillion in global revenues and included companies like AT&T, Verizon, Procter & Gamble, Pfizer, eBay etc. Most, if not all, of these companies are high-tech giants which create jobs in the ‘STEM’ category (science, technology, engineering and math).
So, what exactly are STEM occupations? Although there is no universal definition, experts generally agree that STEM workers use their knowledge of science, math and technology to solve problems. A narrow definition of STEM professions comprises occupations in six fields including but not limited to, Computer and Mathematics; Engineering; and Life, Physical, and Social Sciences. Occupations in Health care are included in the broad definition of STEM. As of 2015, the total number of STEM workers in the US is about 20.4 million. They form 12.6 percent of the total workforce. Out of these, about 3.9 million are foreign-born.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in a 2012 report, predicted the growth in STEM occupations to reach approximately 13 percent; which means more than nine million jobs between 2012 and 2022. However, it is unlikely that all these positions will be filled by native-born STEM workers. US secondary-school students tend to underperform compared to their peers from other developed nations. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international survey that evaluates education systems all over the world by testing the skills and knowledge of middle school students. In the 2012 PISA exam, students from the US ranked 26th in math and 28th in sciences out of 65 participating countries. A report in 2012 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology estimates that the United States will need approximately one million more STEM professionals over the next decade. To meet this demand, the country will need to increase the number of annual undergraduate STEM degrees by 34 percent over the current rate. To make up for this lack of supply, the US imports STEM talent from abroad.
Talented immigrants are attracted to the United States due to a variety of factors. These include top-ranking and well-funded universities, world-class research facilities, a highly respected global business environment and very attractive compensation packages. Most immigrants come to the country with an F-1 visa. This is a non-immigrant visa which allows internationals to study in institutes of higher education and to obtain post-graduate degrees. These degrees then allow them to obtain gainful employment and thus become eligible to apply for the H1-B visa. H1-B is a work permit for internationals to work in their field of study for up to six years following which they can file for a ‘green card’2 or a residence permit.
As you may have guessed, this is not as easy as it sounds. Getting an admit into a coveted university is only the first of many hurdles. The application for F-1 visa requires a plethora of documentation; starting from the letter of acceptance from the University and extending as far back as the birth certificate. The application also includes visa fees up to $2003 followed by long queues at the embassy for the actual visa interview. Successful applicants are vetted by the Department of Homeland Security before they are permitted to enter the country. The H1-B visa application is even more inflexible as there are only a limited number of visas offered every year on a lottery based system, and applicants are required to have an employer sponsor their visa. Getting chosen in the lottery means, an additional round of gathering documentation, visa-fees and interviews in their home country before they are granted re-entry into the United States. Once immigrants find an employer who is willing to file for their green card, they undergo another round of extensive background checks, interviews and long waits before being granted a green card.
Apart from visa issues, immigrants also face a number of challenges including extremely limited financial resources, cultural and language barriers and the fact that they essentially have to rebuild their life from scratch without the support of their family or friends. All of these notwithstanding, immigrants make a significant contribution the American economy. They are knowledge creators, innovators and founders of companies. Almost one quarter of all international patent applications from United States are filed by noncitizens. In fact, college educated immigrants are twice as likely to file for patents as native-born. The contribution of immigrants to innovation and new business is well documented in the Silicon valley. Yahoo was founded by Jerry Yang, who moved from Taiwan to the US at the age of 12. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBAY was born in Paris to Iranian parents. Alexis Ohnian, the founder of Reddit is a second generation immigrant. 52 percent of the new Silicon Valley companies started between 1995 and 2005 were founded by immigrants.
Immigrant STEM workers tend to have different occupations than native born workers. For example, educated native-born workers tend to work as managers, teachers, lawyers, and nurses, while immigrants tend to work as engineers, scientists, and doctors. A 2001 study reports that “foreign-born scientists and engineers in the United States are disproportionately represented among the individuals elected to the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, among authors of scientific papers, and among founders and chairs of biotechnology companies”. Immigrants are more likely to obtain a patent. They also account for a growing number of US patents in electronics, computing, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals. This innovation increases revenue for companies, which in turn helps to increase wages for all employees and enables companies to hire more people. In fact, it has been reported that every 100 foreign-born workers in STEM occupations were associated with 262 jobs for native-born workers.
There is overwhelming data to suggest that, time and again, immigrants in STEM have an extremely positive impact on the US economy. They lead innovation, research, and help create more jobs. Henry Ford did so. As did Estee Lauder, Elon Musk, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. A report from the US Chamber of Commerce and American Council on International Personnel rightly concludes “Closing the door to highly educated individuals… who aid the competitiveness of US companies of will weaken, not strengthen, our country and will diminish the competitiveness of American employees. In the global economy, investment follows the talent and attempts to restrict the hiring of talented foreign- born professionals in the United States encourages such hiring to take place overseas, where the investment dollars will follow”
1Emigration was strictly controlled in the USSR with the objective of protecting state secrets and maintaining the morale of its citizens. Exit visas were denied, especially to Soviet Jews on the pretext of association with state secrets. The application for exit visa was noted by intelligence officials and those citizens would either be fired or denied employment in their area of specialty. They would then be forced to take up menial jobs, as happened in the case of Sergei Brin’s parents. 2United States lawful permanent residency is informally known as green card. This card authorizes a person to lawfully reside and work in the US permanently. A lawful permanent resident can eventually apply for naturalization or US citizenship. 3200 USD is usually paid in the native currency. For example, 1 USD is equivalent to 65 Indian Rupees(INR), so the application fees is approximately 13,000 INR; 1 USD is approximately 6 Chinese Yuan so fees would be 1200 Chinese Yuan.