Keeping Out The Wrong People

Tightened visa rules are slowing the vital flow of professionals into the U.S.

Like a forlorn Estragon from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Zubair Malik has been waiting. And waiting. The 30-year-old Pakistani doctor applied for a U.S. visa in April after being accepted into the prestigious residency program at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Five months later, he hasn't yet made it through the gantlet of security measures the U.S. set up for foreign visitors after September 11. Malik has missed training and orientation at Mount Sinai and fears he may never get to the Manhattan hospital. "I am still waiting for my security clearance," he says by phone from Pakistan. "My life is disturbed, and I am in severe depression."

Three years after the terrorist attacks in the U.S., tens of thousands of foreigners who are trying to get into the country to study and work have been caught in a thicket of new rules and restrictions. Students like Malik have been particularly hard hit. In 2003, the number of student visas issued by the U.S. dropped 8%, to 215,694, after falling 20% in 2002. Those are the two largest drops since the government began to track student statistics in 1952.

It's not just students who are affected either. The Homeland Security Dept.'s annual report on immigration, released on Sept. 13, shows declines across broad swaths of the populations trying legally to enter the U.S. The total number of immigrants -- those granted the right to stay in the U.S. permanently -- tumbled 34% in 2003, to 705,827, according to the report. Excluding a special amnesty program 15 years ago, that's the steepest decline since 1953, when Senator Joseph McCarthy stoked fears that communists were infiltrating the government.

While no one doubts the need for more rigorous border controls now, there are critics who say the federal government is doing a poor job of distinguishing between potential terrorists and legitimate travelers. Students, for instance, are seeing their visa applications rejected in record numbers: The refusal rate hit 35% last year, up from the previous record of 34% in 2002 and the 20% rate in 1999. Plus, the immigrants with the most to offer the U.S. seem to be having the hardest time getting in: The number of workers with advanced degrees or exceptional skills who were admitted plummeted 65% last year, to 15,459. "We're slapping these people in the face," says National Academy of Engineering President William A. Wulf. "The long-term costs in goodwill will be enormous."

The loss of raw smarts may come much more quickly. Booming economies across the world are serving as beacons of opportunity for the best and the brightest. China, India, and other nations are attracting the kind of people who once saw the U.S. as the No. 1 place to seek their fortunes. "I've lost recruits to other foreign companies," says Roger Coker, director of global staffing for Broadcom Corp., an Irvine (Calif.) chipmaker. "When we lose, it's because we can't give the candidate assurance we can get him a visa. Today I can't hire the foreign-national engineers and scientists we need to run our business."

Of course, Corporate America can simply hire employees offshore, gaining the benefits of their labor without dealing with the hassles of bringing them to the States. But that's not a solution for all kinds of workers. Companies can't -- or won't -- send overseas their most critical jobs, whether it's top managers, product designers, or senior software developers. "The people that came here were not doing the outsourcing jobs. They were contributing at the highest levels and innovating," says Anna Lee Saxenian, dean of the University of California at Berkeley's School of Information Management & Systems. And the implication that outsourcing is a solution is worrisome to some: It means the U.S.'s inability to sort out trustworthy workers from security threats could accelerate the transfer of jobs overseas.

The situation in the U.S. is hardly a catastrophe now. Despite the recent declines, the number of skilled and professional immigrants in 2003 is more than the number in 1999. The number of student visas issued last year is about the same as 1994.

The fear is that the country, intentionally or not, will continue to discourage talented workers and students from trying to get into the U.S. If current trends continue, economists, academics, and business leaders worry that the country could squander one of its greatest historical strengths: the talent and energy of skilled immigrants. From Albert Einstein to Intel Corp.'s Andrew S. Grove to Google Inc.'s Sergey Brin, high-skilled immigrants have helped establish U.S. leadership in many fields, creating new industries and pioneering areas of scientific endeavor. "We benefit enormously from high-skilled immigration," says Gary S. Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago. "We have to try to maintain that."


How can that be done? The U. S. government certainly faces a difficult balancing act. It instituted many necessary security measures in the wake of September 11 -- not only to keep out potential terrorists, but also to crack down on rampant fraud by foreigners using student visas to get into the country even though they had no plans to attend school. At the same time, the government has struggled to add the capabilities needed to meet those requirements, particularly in terms of people and technology. Visitors who work in technology fields, for example, must go through a series of new reviews, but few government staffers have the technical expertise needed to conduct the reviews. "We do not have enough consular officers and local employees who do the background checks," says Richard N. Holwill, a former ambassador to Ecuador and now vice-president of Amway parent Alticor Inc., which has been unable to hire several foreigners because of visa troubles. The result is that visa applications that used to take weeks now can take six months or longer. The backlog of applications hit an all-time high of 3.8 million in January.

The U.S. State Dept. and Homeland Security Dept. acknowledge the problems and are taking steps to speed the entry of legitimate travelers. The State Dept. is hiring more consular officers with technical backgrounds. Homeland Security's Citizenship & Immigration Services is using technology to accelerate its own reviews. Among other things, it's letting visa officers tap into a computer database to view an applicant's information, instead of having to retype data into local systems. On Sept. 23, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was scheduled to announce the backlog of visa applications had been sliced to 1.8 million during the first eight months of the year. Still, much work remains. Homeland Security says it needs additional funding to sufficiently train its existing staff in languages, new technology, interview, and counterterrorism techniques. And government critics say both State and Homeland Security still need more staff and more streamlined policies, including long-term, multiple-entry visas for reputable scientists, engineers, and business travelers who need to visit the U.S. often.

Tweaking the existing system may be inadequate in this era of globalization, however. Many educators and economists say the country needs to modernize its immigration policy for the 21st century, remaking it to attract more skilled workers and students. The last overhaul of the system came in 1965 under the Johnson Administration. At the time, 20% of the annual visas were set aside for professionals and other skilled workers, while 64% went toward family reunification. A carefully calibrated decision? Hardly. President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted 50% of the visas for skilled immigrants, but political horse trading resulted in the ratios that remain in effect today. The low cap means that many talented people from around the world may never even try to get into the U.S. because they figure they have no chance of success.

So what's the right mix? The University of Chicago's Becker argues the U.S. should "give the highest priority to people with high skills and allow large numbers to come in, maybe unlimited numbers." There's plenty of opposition to such a dramatic step. Politicians are reluctant to invite in foreign workers at a time when the U.S. job market is soft, particularly during an election year. And immigrant groups such as Hispanics would oppose any reduction in the absolute number of family-based visas. Experts believe that one feasible option would be to substantially increase the visas reserved for skilled people, while keeping family visas steady. That could lead to a ratio of 50%. "Our policy is too heavily tilted toward kinship," says Barry R. Chiswick, head of the economics department of the University of Illinois at Chicago. If the U.S. does not reform the immigration system, "we're going to become less competitive in the international market for high-tech manpower."

Since students are the farm team of the knowledge economy, educators say the reform program should feature a new strategy to attract the world's best prospects. For a generation after World War II, the U.S. used international student exchange as a strategic Cold War weapon. But after the Iron Curtain fell, the U.S. dropped the ball. The State Dept.'s Educational & Cultural Exchange budget has declined to $245 million in 2003, from $335 million in 1994, in constant dollars. That was boosted to $317 million this year, but experts think that money should still be increased dramatically. "We could easily and productively spend double the amount [the State Dept. is spending]," says Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Educational & Cultural Exchange, a Washington nonprofit organization. "We haven't been thoughtful about recruiting, and we certainly haven't put significant resources in it."

Make no mistake, there is fierce international competition for talented workers and students. Several developed countries have launched aggressive campaigns in recent years to attract foreigners. In May, the German government forged a deal to allow non-European workers to immigrate to Germany for the first time in decades. Australia has been adjusting its policies to attract students from other countries, sending its foreign-student enrollment up 53% since 2001. And Canada has instituted a federal innovation strategy, aimed at increasing its ranking in research and development to fifth in the world, from 14th. One law that went into effect in the summer of 2002 made it easier for skilled workers and students to stay in Canada. "These countries have been adjusting their systems to encourage and accommodate these people," says Demetrios G. Papademetriou, co-director of Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. "They have taken a ladle, not a spoon, and are helping themselves to this pool."


China and India also are attracting talented workers like never before, even from the U.S. Consider Raymond Yang. For most of his 20-year career, the Chinese native worked in the U.S., in what he considered the big leagues of business. But last year, the 46-year-old agreed to become chief executive of Linktone Ltd., a Shanghai-based startup that sells ring tones and other content for cell phones. "There are a lot of opportunities for people to fulfill their dreams here," says Yang. "China will get stronger and stronger."

American workplaces, universities, research labs, and other institutions are rife with stories of people who are being denied entry to the country. Alticor's Holwill says the company tried to get visas for several foreigners, but the delays dragged on for months. "A couple said 'screw this' and went to work for non-American companies," he says. Keith Nosbusch, chief executive of manufacturer Rockwell Automation Inc. (ROK ), said it had to delay its bid for a subway project in China for four months because a sales engineer from China couldn't get to the States for the training needed to finish the bid. And Elizabeth Dickson, head of immigration services for Ingersoll-Rand Co. (IR ), says difficulties in getting visas have disrupted its training programs. "Rejections are very arbitrary," she says. "You can send someone with the exact same paperwork and get a different response from different consulates."

To get a sense of the disruptions on university campuses, consider Mississippi State University. Its Electrical & Computer Engineering Dept. has been hit hard, like many other science and engineering programs, because of the government's shortage of visa reviewers with technical backgrounds. On the Starkville campus, enrollment of foreign undergraduate students fell 33% for the class of 2003, while graduate student enrollment declined 7%. What's more, James C. Harden, the head of the Electrical & Computer Engineering Dept., says the problems have led to a deterioration in the quality of students who specialize in digital computing. "Generally we would have more applicants in that area and they would be better," says Harden.

The problems at universities may get worse before they get better. On Sept. 8, the Council of Graduate Schools released a survey of 126 schools that showed an 18% drop in offers of admissions to international graduate students. Council President Debra W. Stewart says it would be "difficult to imagine that we will not experience at least an 18% decline in admissions" for the class of 2004.

Visa problems may be beginning to harm the quality and speed of research. Dr. Bing Su, an immunology professor who came to the U.S. from China in 1985 to get his PhD, says when he tried to come to the U.S. the Chinese government made it very difficult to leave. The irony, he says, is that "the screening is on this side now." What's more, he calls the screening "indiscriminate."

Indeed, one top Chinese PhD student he recruited last year enrolled in a university in Singapore because she could not obtain a visa after more than a year's effort. The cancer research of two other postdoctoral students was delayed more than three months due to visa problems. "In the short term it is hard to see a loss, but ultimately there will be a very bad impact on research," says Su.

It's a sentiment that Zubair Malik can identify with. Back in Pakistan, he is growing impatient. He has requested an extension from Mount Sinai, but he is having second thoughts about living the American Dream. "I think again and again that my decision to pursue my career in the U.S. was wrong," he says. Without a new approach to U.S. immigration policy, there may be many more Maliks wondering the same thing.

By Spencer E. Ante in New York

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