America's Immigrant Brain Drain
As the debate over the role of highly skilled immigrants intensifies in the U.S., we're losing sight of an important fact: America is no longer the only land of opportunity for these foreign-born workers. There's another, increasingly promising, destination: home. New research shows that many immigrants have returned to their native countriesplus or minus—especially India and China—to enjoy what they see as a better quality of life, better career prospects, and the comfort of nearby family and friends.
The trend has accelerated in the past few years, in part because these workers have also lost patience with the U.S. visa backlog. At the end of 2006, more than a million professionals and their families were in line for the yearly allotment of just 120,000 permanent-resident visas. The wait time for some has been longer than 10 years.
And with Washington trying to create jobs for Americans comes another hurdle: provisions in the just-passed stimulus bill making it tougher for companies getting bailouts to hire workers on temporary H-1B visas.
Why should we care? Because immigrants are critical to our long-term economic health. Although they represent just 12% of the U.S. population, they have started 52% of Silicon Valley's tech companies and contributed to more than 25% of U.S. global patents. They make up 24% of science and engineering workers with bachelor's degrees and 47% of those with PhDs.
Now, say human resources directors in India and China, what was a trickle of returnees a decade ago has become a flood. (There are no official numbers on the reverse migration.) Job applications from immigrants in the U.S., they say, have risen tenfold over the past few years. Visa difficulties are behind some of this. But there are other reasons, too. A survey conducted last year by my research team at Duke University, along with AnnaLee Saxenian of the University of California at Berkeley and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard University, polled 1,203 Indian and Chinese immigrants who used the professional networking service LinkedIn and who had left the U.S. for their home countries.
The vast majority of returnees, we found, are relatively young—30 on average for Indians, 33 for Chinese. Their degrees are in management, technology, and science. Among the Chinese, 51% have MAs, 41% PhDs. Among Indians, 66% hold MAs and 21% are PhDs. These figures put the returnees in the U.S. population's educational top tier—precisely the kind of people who can make the greatest contribution to innovation and growth. And it isn't just new immigrants who are returning home, we learned. Some 30% of the respondents had permanent resident status or were U.S. citizens.
What propelled their reverse migrations? Some 84% of the Chinese and 69% of the Indians cited professional opportunities. And while they make less money in absolute terms at home, most said their salaries brought a "better quality of life" than what they had in the U.S. (There was also some reverse culture shock—complaints about congestion in India, say, and pollution in China.) When it came to social factors, 67% of the Chinese and 80% of the Indians cited better "family values" at home. For the vast majority, a longing for family and friends was also a crucial element. And asked if U.S. "visa issues" were a factor in turning toward home, a third of the Indians and a fifth of the Chinese said yes.
Most seem to be thriving. With demand for their skills growing in their home countries, they're finding corporate success. About 10% of the Indians polled had held senior management jobs in the U.S. That number rose to 44% after they returned home. Among the Chinese, the number rose from 9% in the U.S. to 36% in China.
Immigrants to America have always felt lonely and homesick. They've always made sacrifices so their children could have a chance to succeed. Now they have another option in their quest for a better life: returning home. We may not need all these workers in the U.S. during this recession. But we will need them to help us recover from it. What might bring them back? Such a recruitment effort would almost certainly require major changes to immigration policy. That hardly seems likely given the current political climate, where the focus seems to be on doing whatever it takes to keep existing American jobs—even if that comes at the cost of America's long-term promise.