Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Cross-Border Brain Transfers
For most of American history, more than “persecution,” one word has defined how the United States embraced immigration: “opportunity.” Even as our “melting pot” morphed into our ethno-cultural “lettuce bowl,” the United States attracted people who wanted to “do,” and somehow felt restrained in their native lands by reason of birth, caste, bias, discrimination, oppression or… most recently… looking for a culture of academic, technical, scientific and sophisticated economic excellence where “job one” was pushing the envelope, a nation that loved to showcase its rags-to-riches success stories.
But that was the opportunity for people living in other lands seeking to better themselves. In recent years, it has been American companies and educational institutions have been the ones seeking the opportunities. It seems that when they needed the best and the brightest to fuel the explosion of engineering and technology that is synonymous with American cutting-edge growth, and when our own systems were not producing enough of that highest tier of scientific and mathematical excellence, they simply had to reach off-shore to seduce the best minds not already living here with solid pay, the potential to earn equity and the ability to live and bring their immediate families into America’s land of milk and honey. It was called the H1-B visa reserved for those of superlative intellect/ability willing to come to the United States. That so many of them were coming from Asia, people of color, seemed to be irrelevant… then.
But we live in anti-intellectual time, an era of science skeptics, and one where xenophobia has usurped our one selfish desire to capture the best and the brightest to continue America’s greatness. Qualifications slid to favor “white Christians from Europe” over top performing PhDs from places like India, China… and yes, even Syria (remember Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian immigrant). Where xenophobia has crossed into hate, the consequences have been devastating.
Case in point, Wednesday February 22nd, in Olathe, Kansas: “It was hardly unusual: Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, two immigrants from India, often enjoyed an after-work whiskey at the bar they had adopted as a hangout… Adam W. Purinton was also there, tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States, other customers said. Patrons complained, and Mr. Purinton was thrown out… But a short time later, he came back in a rage and fired on the two men, the authorities said. Mr. Kuchibhotla was killed, and Mr. Madasani was wounded, along with a 24-year-old man who had tried to apprehend the gunman, who fled.” New York Times, February 24th. They apparently looked like Muslims… or maybe those nasty Mexicans to Mr. Purinton. They were obviously neither.
But it has become politically acceptable these days to be angry, to hate foreigners – particularly people of color or folks with differing religious views – a perspective seemingly heavily embraced in the rhetoric of our own president and, most recently, in his rather thinly-disguised anti-Muslim travel bans. And for those of exceptional brilliance, thinking of pursuing an advanced degree or a cutting-edge technology job here, people who just might come from a land of differing skin color, the atmosphere in the United States has escalated from mere doubt to fear of being injured or killed in gun-crazed America.
“India is second only to China as a feeder to American colleges, with around 165,000 students enrolled in the 2015-16 school year, according to the Institute of International Education. Indians are the largest recipients of temporary skilled worker visas, known as H-1B visas, which the Trump administration intends to cut back. And close to half a million Indians, who mostly went to the United States legally as students or tourists or on work visas, have stayed on after their visas expired, the Pew Research Center estimates.
“Reports of rising American hostility toward immigrants have stunned many Indians, said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who visited Hyderabad recently… ‘I had a guy on a plane sitting next to me, who turned to me and said, ‘Is it true, what they say about America under Trump?’ ’ she said. ‘There is a kind of confusion: What is happening to the United States? People can’t believe what they’re reading.’…
“Some Indians who had planned to go to the United States said they were hesitating. Manavi Das, who is considering several universities, said she was “constantly looking to see if the school is in a red state, or has witnessed a shooting in recent times... ‘After a certain event in November,’ she said, ‘I have found my apprehensions turned up a notch.’
“Sunny Choudhary, 23, said he had decided not to apply to graduate engineering programs in the United States, because ‘recent conditions, they are turning into, I think, hostile conditions.’ After Mr. Trump was elected, he added, ‘my parents said: ‘No, you should not go there. Now we won’t let you go there.’’ ” New York Times, February 26th. We trained ‘em; shouldn’t we keep ‘em?
The Silicon Valley, with a number of companies admittedly founded and run by entrepreneurs born in India, has placed a high demand on tech workers from the Subcontinent. And while many are seeking the “best and the brightest” for their companies, there is a bit of truth to certain abuses in the process whereby some tech companies use the H1-B visa to import tech workers, no more qualified than their American counterparts, at lower rates.
“The average salary of an H1-B holder in 2015 was $77,000. Some politicians like California Democrat Zoe Lofgren wants to see the salary raised to $130,000. For Lofgren, that would eliminate the abuses largely blamed on the Indians for bringing in lower cost software engineers. But downmarket, at smaller companies, including those in Santa Clara, this prospect of higher wages is a bad idea. Call it the unintended consequences of government mandated wage guarantees.
“‘We hired about 400 people last year and for a mid-sized company that is a lot of hires, and it is not easy to find them, even here in the Valley,’ says Raj Mamodia, CEO of digital consultancy Brillio. He says around 10% of his 2,500 global employees are on an H1-B. Their average pay is $100,000. That may seem like a lot. But the average income in Santa Clara is $93,500 and the average home price is a little over $1 million. ‘I think that is very good compensation. If I have to pay 30% more to foreign workers, what do I do with my American citizen workers? They will want more too. If they require salary minimums at that level it will undercut small to mid-sized businesses like mine. I won't be able to bring in the best and the brightest where I need it and all the talent just goes to the bigger firms in the Valley.’” Forbes.com, February 27th. Solve the problem; don’t kill or maim the program.
If economic growth and job creation are our goals, then having the best inventive/ entrepreneurial minds is essential. “Some 40% of Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or their children, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy, a pressure group. So were the firms behind seven of the ten most valuable brands in the world. Although the foreign-born are only an eighth of America’s population, a quarter of high-tech start-ups have an immigrant founder.” The Economist (4/13/13).
There are conflicting issues that could be solved with a visa plan that makes sense, but today there does seem to be a “dump the baby with the bathwater” approach to immigration reform. America, land of immigrants, is turning heartless, even to kids who were brought to the United States when they were so young that they do not know any other country: the “Dreamers.” “President Trump’s sympathetic remarks about the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers — ‘these incredible kids,’ he has called them — were a surprising turn for a man who had vowed during the campaign to ‘immediately terminate’ their protections from deportation.
“But they are unlikely to be the last word. Mr. Trump has not ruled out ending the Obama-era program that shields the young immigrants, who have taken little comfort in his comments. And the president is already coming under intense pressure from the immigration hard-liners in his Republican base to keep his promise…
“The president is weighing a variety of strategies for dealing with the roughly 840,000 Dreamers, according to senior officials, including Mr. Priebus, and lawmakers of both parties in Congress have been trying to devise legislation to carve out a special status for them. For the time being, Mr. Trump’s administration is still issuing work permits to undocumented people under the program, leaving their protection intact even if their fate is in limbo.
“The delay has outraged supporters of Mr. Trump’s who took his vows to rescind President Barack Obama’s program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, very seriously… ‘He’s really starting to anger his base with this,’ said Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, a group that works to reduce immigration. ‘I’ve got people really angry and talking about ‘He’s double crossed us, he’s deceived us.’ You could say that the troops are restless, and I can’t blame them.’” New York Times.
In the end, it’s a wild mix of selfishness, of empathy, an understanding of our real limitations and genuine “non-fake news” needs, laced with an acknowledgement that almost all of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. “We got here first” just isn’t enough anymore. Even if we are just selfish, we are still doing it wrong.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as I keep saying, “common sense” is one of the least forms of sense in the world.