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Young, skilled, expelled: foreign talent in demand in US

They are young, highly-skilled and urgently needed by the US economy – Indian, Chinese or Eastern European high-tech experts who have graduated with a degree from an American university. But restrictive immigration laws over and again are forcing graduates and company founders to leave the country. As a result, America’s IT industry is joining forces in launching a “virtual march” – an internet-based campaign – to urge Democrats and Republicans in Congress to reform America’s immigration laws.

Two people who have been forced to leave the United States by the visa system are Indira and Rahul Chaturvedi (names have been changed) of India. Rahul pursued information studies at a major US university, while Indira studied bio-medical engineering. They met as students in the US in 2007, becoming not only a couple, but then also business partners. Together, they developed for the social networking site Facebook the “Pillow Fight” game. It was Indira’s idea, while her husband did the software programming.

The Chaturvedis founded a small company and were so successful at it that they also hired several employees. The couple paid around 250,000 dollars in taxes over a two-year period, according to a report by the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation. But after their studies were completed, the couple were not given a work permit, and so in 2010 they had to return to India, where they are still awaiting a permanent-residence US visa.

“We’re trying to take care of it,” Rahul Chaturvedi told dpa in an e-mail. It’s a problem also being debated in other countries, like Germany: how to attract highly-qualified immigrants. The computer sector is wringing its hands in search of trained experts, and German politicians look with envy at the US, where internet companies are nourished by Silicon Valley and its venture capitalists.

A similar culture of entrepreneurship and a readiness to take risks is also needed in Germany, Berlin’s economics minister, Philipp Roesler, argued at the recent computer and office equipment fair CeBIT. Not all is wine and roses in the United States, however. The country is also seeking skilled immigrants to fill empty job positions. The US Chamber of Commerce has projected that in the year 2018, at least 200,000 jobs in the high-tech sector will go unfilled. Even in Silicon Valley itself, young foreign entrepreneurs are running up against bureaucratic hurdles.

The problem is rooted in the US immigration system. Foreign entrepreneurs have fallen through the cracks of the bureaucratic framework, for there is no specific visa for such persons. As a rule, a limited work permit is issued to a foreigner if he or she is employed by a US company. “Unless they get a sponsor, they have big problems in remaining beyond their student visas,” Edward Roberts, a professor at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the “MIT News.”

It often requires years of waiting for a permanent work permit. According to the Yale study, the US issues a maximum of seven per cent of its annual visas to applicants from any given country. But more than 50 per cent of the highly-qualified applicants are from India and China.

The US urgently needs graduates in the so-called MINT (mathematics, informatics, natural sciences, technology) disciplines. Already, an average of 40 per cent of the masters and doctoral students in these four areas come from abroad. In his State of the Union speech in February, President Barack Obama said he aimed to “attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.” Republicans and Democrats alike agree that the country must keep foreign experts in the country. But the long drawn-out debate over the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US has delayed a decision in Congress.

The years of political tug-of-war has now driven America’s high-tech industry to set up a protest alliance. One hundred major firms in the technology sector sent an open letter to Congress – signatories included Yahoo boss Marissa Mayer, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and the heads of Intel and Cisco – demanding a reform of the “outdated and inefficient” immigration system. They also urged making the upper limits on immigrants more flexible.

Zuckerberg and other industry leaders from Silicon Valley are also in the process of creating a lobbying group to push for immigration and education reforms, according to media reports. The high-tech scene, known for its liberal leanings, has hired on not only Democratic Party consultants but also several conservative advisors. The protest campaign is to reach its climax in April, when voting is expected in Congress on immigration law reform. Via social media sites, people are being urged to exert pressure on a Congress mired in partisan disputes. The IT sector is hoping for a success similar to that of last year, when mass protests launched by internet companies brought down a controversial law.

Eva Doerr Und Jessica Binsch, "Young, skilled, expelled: foreign talent in demand in US," Business recorder. 2013-04-03.