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Career Focus: Circuits & Systems
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IEEE-USA Teams Up with Industry to Promote High-Tech Immigration and Job Creation

By Chris McManes

Some of world’s top international students earn their advanced high-tech college degrees in the United States, and many would like to remain here. But with an immigration system that makes them wait as long as 10 years for a chance to become permanent residents, many choose to return home or move to a country more welcoming.

So the question for the United States is: do we want to educate these brilliant minds and then send them home to compete against us, or do we want to allow them to stay here and contribute to our economy?

IEEE-USA and the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) joined with Texas Instruments, Intel, the American Council on International Personnel and the Business Roundtable to host a student immigration briefing on Capitol Hill for congressional staff on 18 May. The event highlighted the plight of foreign students who wish to start their careers and build their lives here.

“What it really all comes down to is competition,” said Patrick Wilson, SIA’s director of government affairs, during the briefing. “If we want to continue to be the best, we have to lock in all the very best talent.”

According to a 2007 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation report, more than a million highly skilled immigrants, including scientists, engineers, doctors, researchers and their families, are competing for 120,000 permanent U.S. resident visas each year. IEEE-USA and SIA have twice in the past four years sent joint letters to congressional leaders urging them to pass immigration reform for scientists and engineers. One recommendation is to increase the number of employment-based (EB) visas, including an exemption for foreign professionals with advanced degrees from U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Currently, about half of master’s degrees and more than two-thirds of Ph.Ds. granted by U.S. universities in electrical engineering go to foreign nationals.

“At a time when job creation is the nation’s top priority, the United States must act now to encourage these highly skilled individuals to remain here to create new companies, new products, new technologies and most importantly, new jobs,” the 31 March 2011 letter said. “If we fail to act now, we will lose another class of talented innovators, and the economic benefits of their brilliant work will go elsewhere.”

Kauffman also discovered, in earlier studies, that 25 percent of U.S. engineering and technology companies founded between 1995 and 2005 had an immigrant founder. These companies, according to Kauffman, employed 450,000 workers and generated $52 billion in revenue in 2006, much of it in America.

Google falls into this category. The Mountain View, Calif., Internet company was founded in the late 1990s by Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Brin was born in Moscow to mathematician Michael Brin and scientist Eugenia Brin. After stops in Austria and France, the family immigrated to New York in 1979 and eventually settled in Greenbelt, Md. Sergey earned his bachelor’s degree with honors in mathematics and computer science from the University of Maryland. He and Page met at Stanford University in 1995 and started Google three years later.

Had America not been welcoming to Brin’s parents, Sergey would not have grown up here and probably never would have met Page to found a revolutionary company that employs more than 20,000 people worldwide.

“Something like half of all the start-ups that began in Silicon Valley over the last 10 years had at least one immigrant among the founders,” said Russ Harrison, IEEE-USA’s senior legislative representative for grassroots activities.

Who knows where the next successful company will be founded? Not all immigrants want to be entrepreneurs and not all will start companies as successful as Google, but many can contribute to U.S. job creation and the economy.

Students Tell Their Stories

Each of the four students who briefed Congress in May want to remain in the United States. Some are here on temporary H-1B visas, which allow them to stay for up to six years. Under this visa, however, they cannot start their own business. They need a permanent EB visa (green card) to do that. The students included:

  • Poornika Fernandes (Bangladesh), who holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Dallas. She works for Texas Instruments and has conducted research into miniature devices that can rapidly detect ultra-low concentrations of chemical and biological agents. These devices have applications in drug discovery, homeland security and defense, and medical diagnosis and screening.

    “Such a device can revolutionize medicine by making point-of-contact diagnosis possible, even in the [most remote] locations, and create a whole new market for job creation,” Fernandes said.

  • Chun-Hui Lin (Taiwan), who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology. His research is focused on designing and making MEMS (Micro-Electrical-Mechanical Systems) and bioMEMS devices for detecting, treating and —maybe one day — preventing glaucoma. He would like to start his own company commercializing these devices, which carry the potential to prevent blindness, but his student-visa prevents him.

    “I have a viable product, a business plan and the passion to start a company that will provide a true service to people in need,” Lin said, “but I can’t even start building it until I get a green card.”

  • Esmaeil Hooman Banaei (Iran), a third-year Ph.D. student in optical and electrical engineering at the University of Central Florida. He is developing a light-weight, low-cost, flexible solar fabric that can convert light into electricity with a small photovoltaic cell. He, too, would like to commercialize his research and start his own business with a research colleague.

    “[My company] would be especially important to central Florida, which is about to lose many of the high-tech engineering jobs associated with NASA and Cape Canaveral,” Banaei said. “Companies like mine are exactly the types of companies that could create new job opportunities to absorb displaced NASA engineers.”

  • Shengnan Shao (China), a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Her research focuses on advanced computer and communications technologies that are being incorporated into the Smart Grid. She would like to stay in the United States and work for an alternative energy producer or electric utility.

    “The electrical grid along America’s northeast corridor, and especially in the [Washington,] D.C., area, is already stretched,” Shao said. “Adding hundreds of thousands [electric vehicles] to our power system could break it, unless those vehicles are added properly.

    “That’s what I’m working on.”

Jim Jefferies, IEEE-USA vice president for government affairs, said in a separate interview that these are the type of people the United States should be encouraging to remain.

“We need to change U.S. immigration law for high-skilled workers so that creative, American-educated international students like these can make the choice to stay in the United States and become a permanent part of the American tradition of innovation,” he said.

SIA’s Wilson cited eBay as another example of a company that originated from a vision to bring buyers and sellers together so that they could make safe Internet-based transactions. A lot of people originally scoffed at the idea of this online marketplace.

“Well, guess what, eBay has [more than 17,000] employees today,” Wilson said. “One immigrant, one crazy idea — nobody else wanted to buy it — created a company that now employs thousands and thousands of Americans. That’s what we call game changing; that’s what we call risk taking. The question is: will we lock in all of that talent today before they go found the next eBay somewhere else that’s more hospitable? And our competitors get this. …

“We have to really wake up and realize that this is a competition, and competing for talent is part of that.”



Chris McManes, IEEE-USA’s public relations manager, assisted in the planning of this event.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

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