The (Reverse) Brain Drain

June 24, 2009

In the latter half of the 20th century, the term “brain drain” had a clearly defined meaning: it referred to the process in which the elite classes in post-colonial societies fled or sent their children abroad, either to study or work in developed countries—-the United States in particular.

This was a serious problem for developing countries, as the local top talent didn't stick around to help build and improve the nascent national project. This flight of human capital was particularly pronounced in India and China, contributing to the well-worn stereotype of the Asian IT genius or math whiz.

In an index of how much the economic balance of forces between the U.S. and the rest of the world has changed, America itself is now facing a brain drain as the very people who immigrated here for education and jobs are encountering resistance.

A “chilly local immigration environment” combined with “a more attractive employment environment overseas and a bad local economy” are prompting foreign-born high-achievers to head for home, a Reuters article noted yesterday.

The article quoted a statistic produced from a 2007 Duke University study often cited by immigration advocates: more than half the start-ups that sprung up in Silicon Valley from 1995 to 2005 had a foreign-born founder.

The professor behind that study told Reuters that 60 of the 65 foreign engineers he helped train this year are moving to India, China, and Turkey to take on business executive roles.

That trend-line is further borne out by H1-B visa numbers this year. (The H1-B visa is designed to allow U.S. companies to temporarily employ high-skilled foreign workers in “specialty occupations.”) As of May of this year, only 45,500 petitions were filed-—19,500 short of the cap. By contrast, in 2007 and 2008, it took a mere two days to hit the ceiling.

As the American economy entered its steep descent, some lawmakers targeted the H1-B visa, arguing that American jobs were not going into American hands. Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin have recently introduced a bill to place greater restrictions the number of H1-B visa holders.

Because of the hostile atmosphere and onerous restrictions—such as the ones detailed in the New York Times' profile of a key Google engineer who's marooned in Canada—it's no small wonder that the American dream has become an increasingly hazy apparition for some immigrants.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam writes about America and Islam at his website, Crossing the Crescent, and for WireTap, where he is also the immigration blogger.