Combatting America's "Brain Drain"

“America no longer has a monopoly on knowledge”.

So said Vivek Wadhwa; tech entrepreneur, academic and one of the panelists at an information summit we went to today for the Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR) program. EIR is a Department of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) led initiative to get entrepreneurs, experts, and USCIS staff together to discuss the problems and possible innovations around immigrant investors, entrepreneurs, and highly skilled workers, and today was the initiative’s official launch.

The initiative aims to combat “brain drain” -- the idea of highly-skilled workers leaving the US after getting their education here to start businesses in their homelands --by moving on skilled immigration, an issue that’s ostensibly nonpartisan and noncontroversial. A brain drain is what America will experience if we’re unable to attract and retain the best, smartest workers and entrepreneurs -- these people will move overseas and innovate and create businesses there, harming U.S. competitiveness in the global arena.

Studies show that foreign-born entrepreneurs are responsible for creating thousands of American jobs and generating billions of dollars in revenue. Michael Moritz, panelist and partner at Sequoia Capital, said that the number one problem facing the economy today is the need to bring to America these entrepreneurs who want to start companies -- but it’s not just getting them here, it’s keeping them here. Solutions on the table include removing per-country caps on skilled worker visas via H.R.3012, a bill that’s already working its way (slowly) through the legislative process, “stapling” a green card to graduate level students’ STEM degrees, and a startup visa.

In practice, in an election year, and with the Congress that we have, moving on anything is tricky. But, as President Obama noted in his State of the Union address, making some tweaks to skilled immigration has a much better chance of success than comprehensive immigration reform. However, there’s plenty in the pipeline for this issue. California 16th District Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren spoke today about her IDEA Act of 2011 as part of the answer to these problems. And we’re also following the Startup Act, a legislative agenda for startups that includes skilled immigration reform as part of a package of fixes to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses that will create jobs and bolster the economy.

In the end, we’re hopeful the EIR process bears fruitful results and finds new pathways to success on the immigration front. If today’s event was any indication, they seem well on their way, and it’s time to step up pressure on Congress and the White House to act on these issues with innovative solutions.