For decades the United States has relied on the influx of talented labor from around the world to fuel its massive economic engine. Now in the face of slow growth, a stagnant job market, and a reduction in federal funding, many would-be immigrants are choosing to either stay or return to their motherlands. This is especially true for people from booming Asia which has long supplied the United States with talented engineers and other experts. While immigration still remains high, could the growing trend of talented individuals staying in their negative country eventually cause detrimental impacts on the United States?
The immigration of foreign talent has played a major role in the development of the United States since its founding in the 18th century. The millions who poured in from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century formed the basis of much of the country’s earlier manufacturing industry. During and after World War II the influx of refugees from Germany and other parts of Europe sent many of the world’s brightest to the U.S., including Albert Einstein.
Has the United States relied on foreign talent in recent years to fuel its growth? Yes. For example, more than 50% of Silicon Valley’s start-ups have had at least one founder who was foreign born. 25 percent of the United States doctors are foreign trained with similar ratios being observed among the fields of science and engineering. The U.S. has been able to maintain its position as the world’s largest economy largely because it has also attracted the most talented workers from around the world. But with its domestic economy slowing and immigration becoming more difficult, even for highly talented workers, the the United States is having trouble drawing in vital talent.
At the same time conditions are looking better in native countries. Even in the midst of a global economic slowdown China is projected to post a growth rate of 7.4% in 2012 and India should achieve a growth of 5.7%. The Philippines should post a growth of 5.5 percent in 2012, while even fully-developed and export dependent Singapore is projecting a growth rate of 2.5%. The unemployment rates in many of these nations is also extremely low, creating tight labor markets and rising wages. In Singapore, for example, the unemployment rate is under 2.5% while the U.S. is still struggling at 7.7%.
Since September 11th the immigration process has only grown more cumbersome and less predictable. Stories abound on the Internet of highly-successful and educated individuals living and working in the U.S. (on work permits) but being unable to obtain a Green Card. In 2010 the United States Immigration department reported the first ever decline in H1B visas which are granted to highly skilled workers.
Following the 2008 Financial Crisis, perceptions of the United States among foreign born students have markedly declined. A study at UC Berkeley surveying students in 2008 studying business, science, engineering and related fields uncovered some potentially troubling trends. Just 7% percent of Chinese students felt that the USA’s best days were ahead, and only 24% of Indians agreed. Further while approximately 55 percent of Indian and Chinese students wanted to remain in the U.S. for a few years after completing their studies, less than 10 percent wanted to stay permanently.
So far immigration to the United States remains strong, but if the above data suggests anything, it could foreshadow an eventual numerical drop in immigration from Asia. In turn, Asia is an especially important source of highly-skilled immigrants, representing by far the United States largest foreign source of doctors, engineers, and scientists.
Any drop in Asian immigration is important, since historically Asians have been the most successful immigrant group. For example, 63% percent of adult (25 years or older) Asian immigrants come to the United States with a bachelor degree. Surveys have also suggested that Asians maintain strong commitments to family values, education, and the notion that hard work can lead to success. Further, in recent times Asians have become the most successful racial group in the United States with the highest median earnings and educational attainment rates.
With an aging population, high-debt levels, and a declining domestic education system, foreign immigration of talented workers can help alleviate some of the most challenging problems in the United States. However, the U.S. will only remain an immigration hub, if it continues to support immigration through its Visa processes and also has a strong economy to attract and retain foreign born individuals. Continuing to attract the world’s best and brightest may prove vital for ensuring prosperity in the coming decades. A decline in talented immigration, on the other hand, could make it more difficult for the U.S. to compete internationally.