Business groups and their allies, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and various non-profit advocacy organizations, have been arguing for years—without real evidence—that the United States is losing a race to attract the world’s best and brightest young scientists, engineers, computer techies and mathematicians. In a report entitled, Immigration of Foreign Nationals with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Degrees, Ruth Wasem of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently reviewed the statistics regarding these highly skilled migrants and concluded: “The United States remains the leading host country for international students in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields.” The United States has been and continues to be extraordinarily welcoming to foreign students, and especially to those in the STEM fields. CRS reports that the number of foreign graduate students in the STEM fields increased by 50 percent since 1990:
“The number of full-time graduate students in science, engineering, and health fields who were foreign students (largely on F-1 nonimmigrant visas) grew from 91,150 in 1990 to 148,923 in 2009, with most of the increase occurring after 1999. Despite the rise in foreign student enrollment, the percentage of STEM graduate students with temporary visas in 2009 (32.7%) was comparable to 1990 (31.1%). Graduate enrollments in engineering fields have exhibited the most growth of the STEM fields in recent years. About 40,000 graduate degrees were awarded to foreign STEM students in 2009, with 10,000 of those going to Ph.D. recipients.”
But Microsoft and the Chamber of Commerce claim that we’re losing those graduates, that our immigration system doesn’t let us keep the talent our universities have trained. That claim is untrue. CRS reports that in the decade from FY 2000 to FY 2009, the U.S. granted legal permanent residence to almost 300,000 STEM workers, in addition to granting temporary work permits (for up to six years) to hundreds of thousands of others.
Even as this increased supply of foreign STEM workers has developed, U.S. nationals have been graduating with STEM degrees in record numbers. But millions have left their fields because of a lack of job opportunities or because of better opportunities elsewhere. According to CRS, “Almost two-thirds of the 9.3 million people in the U.S. labor market who had STEM degrees in 2010 were employed in non-STEM occupations.” A case could be made that the market is so flooded with STEM graduates, both foreign and native-born, that their skills and education are being wasted; the nation has invested in their education but is not getting a commensurate return.
Nevertheless, corporations such as Microsoft that want an oversupply of workers, have kept up a steady drumbeat for more admissions of foreign students, more temporary work visas and more green cards for foreign STEM workers. They argue that we are suddenly at risk of a “reverse brain-drain” and claim that we are losing an investment we’ve made in the education of the foreign STEM students (while they ignore the investment made in the two-thirds of STEM grads working outside their field of study).
Fortunately, this supposed reverse brain-drain has not developed. Research for the National Science Foundation by Michael G. Finn shows that foreign national PhD graduates of U.S. universities are staying in the U.S. at rates as high or higher than ever. As CRS reports:
“According to his latest published analysis, the 2009 stay rate for all foreign doctorate recipients was 64% for those graduating five years earlier and 66% for those graduating 10 years earlier. … Finn concluded that stay rates for temporary foreign nationals receiving science and engineering doctorates overall have never been higher.”
Finn’s most recent work under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy finds that the stay rates for Chinese and Indian students with STEM doctorates are near 90 percent and near 80 percent, respectively. This and other evidence leads Finn to conclude that the calls by Microsoft, the U.S. Chamber, and others for more high-skill visas correct a problem that doesn’t exist:
“However, the public discourse on this topic often assumes or asserts that foreign doctorate recipients are leaving in large numbers because they are not allowed to stay. I think the data presented here on China and India indicates this is simply not the case.”
There is a bigger danger that immigration law changes like the STAPLE Act, the STEM Jobs Act of 2012, and other STEM immigration bills will distort the labor market, worsen the oversupply of STEM workers, and discourage U.S. students from entering the STEM fields than there is that America will lose the race to capture international talent. Rather than create incentives for U.S. schools—regardless of actual labor market conditions—to churn out foreign student STEM PhDs with the lure of permanent residency in the U.S., Congress should establish a commission to gather facts and provide informed advice about the real needs of U.S. students, workers, and businesses alike.