If the United States doesn't reform its immigration system, it risks a vast "brain hemorrhage," as American-educated Indian and Chinese engineers and entrepreneurs return to their own countries, the scholar and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa said in a provocative speech on Tuesday at the annual meeting here of the Association of International Education Administrators. And American universities have much at stake in reform, he said.
Mr. Wadhwa, who holds appointments at Duke University, Harvard Law School, and the University of California at Berkeley, said the United States was squandering the competitive edge of its higher-education system by allowing one million highly educated immigrants to linger in immigration limbo because of tight caps on visas. And that outmigration could eventually affect American universities, rendering them "obsolete," he said.
"The United States is headed for massive reverse brain drain," said Mr. Wadhwa, who is also a columnist for Business Week and an adviser to a number of startup companies.
"The outflow is happening too fast to be good for the United States," he said. "It's happening too much too fast."
America's innovation economy, Mr. Wadhwa pointed out, owes much to imported talent. A quarter of all patent applications filed in this country are the work of foreign nationals.
From 1995 to 2005, 25 percent of all startup companies had at least one immigrant founder. The number was even higher among new high-tech enterprises—in Silicon Valley, more than half of all companies were started by immigrants. A disproportionate number of startups were founded by immigrants from India, he added.
But current U.S. immigration policy is hostile to those very entrepreneurs, Mr. Wadhwa said. Each year the United States issues only 65,000 H1-B visas, which allow international workers in certain high-tech and specialty fields to be employed in this country, and the federal government tightly caps the number of green cards granted annually to immigrants from individual countries. More than one million foreigners now in the United States are waiting for one of 120,000 permanent-resident visas issued annually to skilled workers.
As a consequence, he said, young and well-educated workers from abroad must return to their home countries. The average age of Indians now returning home from America is 30, and Chinese returnees are, on average, 33.
'Get Out of Their Shells'
American universities are helping fuel the roaring economies overseas, particularly in India, which does not even produce enough engineering doctorates to staff its own universities.
What's more, many international students increasingly believe that the "grass is indeed greener back home," Mr. Wadhwa said.
Just a few years ago, Mr. Wadhwa said, when he would ask his international students at Duke whether they wanted to stay permanently in the United States, most said they did. Today, he said, most plan to work in this country for just a few years and then return home.
As part of his research, Mr. Wadhwa used Facebook to poll foreign students at American universities: Fewer than 10 percent of Chinese students and just 6 percent of Indian students surveyed said they wanted to permanently emigrate to the United States.
Given those trends, Mr. Wadhwa said, a decade from now it's unlikely that 50 percent of all companies will have immigrant founders, a trend that could pose serious consequences for American competitiveness and innovation.
"We're getting more xenophobic, anti-immigrant, just when we need them," he said of American policy and political rhetoric.
Mr. Wadhwa also dismissed as "garbage" American academic studies that suggest such competitiveness concerns are overblown.
American universities, Mr. Wadhwa said, have to "get out of their shells" and become greater advocates for immigration reform. Otherwise, they risk becoming "obsolete."
As more well-educated Chinese and Indian nationals opt to return or remain in their home countries, he said, the quality of universities there will improve, making them more competitive on a world stage.
Over the next decade "Silicon Valley-class universities" will develop in those countries, Mr. Wadhwa said. "American students will want to go there—we'll be left out."