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Is the Next Steve Jobs on a Plane Back to India?

The United States has again reached its cap of H-1B visas for highly skilled immigrants. Here's why you should care.
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Just a few weeks ago, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services announced that that it has reached its cap of 65,000 H-1B visas for highly skilled immigrants for fiscal year 2012. For the time being the agency is no longer taking applications from employers for engineers, PhDs, researchers and the like to stay in the country. As usual, the visas were issued mostly to employees at high-tech companies, with Microsoft, IBM and Infosys Systems claiming the most.

If you're an American citizen, why should you care? Because as a young entrepreneur who may aspire to hire the best technical talent for your venture, record demand for these visas means that some of your best potential hires are probably on the way back to their home-countries, rather than walking into your office for an interview. As Priya Alagiri explains on Business Insider

Welcome to the so-called "Reverse Brain Drain," whereby tens of thousands of U.S.-educated high-technology immigrant entrepreneurs are fleeing the U.S. each year out of frustration with our overly burdensome immigration system. For example, it's currently taking 70 years for highly skilled Indian citizens to get a green card under the most common employment-based visa category.

And even if you're not currently looking to hire highly educated talent, but are instead at the stage where you're hoping to be hired yourself, reverse brain drain is still an issue, according to Alagiri because this class of immigrants is,

A powerful economic lifeline. In the midst of the worst financial crisis of our generation and record high joblessness levels, we must retain these entrepreneurs. Like Steve Jobs, they're smart, creative, and passionate risk-takers who generate an astonishing amount of jobs and revenue in the U.S.

A recent study by the Kauffman Foundation found that, in 2005 alone, immigrant-founded U.S. engineering and technology companies produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers.  In addition, according to a report by The Partnership for a New American Economy, more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants (or their children).

In a country struggling with a long-running employment crisis, this is powerful evidence that these immigrants, on net, aren't taking jobs, but, rather, are creating them. Further evidence can be found in what these U.S.-educated brains accomplish once they head home. As entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadha explains in this radio show interview his research shows that returnees to China and Africa are driving high-level research-and-development work in those countries. The United States's loss may be other countries gain in other ways as well, as countries from Canada to Chile are opening their doors to the talented workers the United States sends packing.

Legislators have announced efforts to improve the visa process and retain more highly skilled, foreign-born workers, but perhaps unsurprisingly considering the general lack of productivity in the current congress, these efforts have been largely ignored by lawmakers.  The visas may be popular with high everyone from Microsoft to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but they aren't completely without critics, who contend that the program drives down wages and can be exploitative to visa holders who are dependent on their companies for their right to live in the country. 

Do you see foreign-born entrepreneurs and engineers as competition or potential collaborators? Are you concerned about their ability to stay in the United States?

IMAGE: Joshua Davis via Flickr
Last updated: Dec 14, 2011

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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