Study: ‘Reverse brain-drain’ harms U.S. competitiveness

Kaufman Foundation study shows skilled immigrants are leaving or are blocked from the U.S. -- and their skills go somewhere else.

By Plant Engineering Staff August 23, 2007

The problem of worker immigration is seen as one of migrants doing farm work or illegal immigrants crashing American borders. A new study by the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation shows a far different the picture of American immigrant worker.

The study, released Aug. 22, shows that more than 1 million skilled immigrant workers, including engineers, scientists, doctors and researchers and their families, are competing for 120,000 permanent U.S. resident visas each year. The report said this creates a “reverse brain-drain” with skilled workers returning to their home country. The number of employment visas issued to immigrants from any single country is less than 10,000 per year with a wait time of several years. The result, study authors contend, is a skewed system that exports knowledge created in the U.S. that would otherwise benefit the nation as it attempts to compete in a global manufacturing economy.

“The United States benefits from having foreign-born innovators create their ideas in this country,” said Vivek Wadhwa, Wertheim fellow with the Harvard Law School and executive in residence at Duke University. “Their departures would be detrimental to U.S. economic well-being. And, when foreigners come to the United States, collaborate with Americans in developing and patenting new ideas, and employ those ideas in business in ways they could not readily do in their home countries, the world benefits.”

Conducted by researchers at Duke University, New York University and Harvard University, the study is the third in a series of studies focusing on immigrants’ contributions to the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.

In this study, “Intellectual Property, the Immigration Backlog, and a Reverse Brain-Drain,” researchers offer a more refined measure of this rise in contributions of foreign nationals to U.S. intellectual property and seek to explain this increase with an analysis of the immigrant-visa backlog for skilled workers. The key finding from this research is that the number of skilled workers waiting for visas is significantly larger than the number that can be admitted to the United States. This imbalance creates the potential for a sizeable reverse brain-drain from the United States to the skilled workers’ home countries.

Among key findings in the report:

  • Foreign nationals residing in the United States were named as inventors or co-inventors in 25.6% of international patent applications filed from the United States in 2006. This represents an increase from 7.6% in 1998.

  • Foreign nationals contributed to more than half of the international patents filed by a number of large, multi-national companies, including Qualcomm (72%), Merck & Co. (65%), General Electric (64%), Siemens (63%) and Cisco (60%). Forty-one% of the patents filed by the U.S. government had foreign nationals as inventors or co-inventors.

  • In 2006, 16.8% of international patent applications from the United States had an inventor or co-inventor with a Chinese-heritage name, representing an increase from 11.2% in 1998. The contribution of inventors with Indian-heritage names increased to 13.7% from 9.5% in the same period.

  • The total number of employment-based principals in the employment-based categories and their family members waiting for legal permanent residence in the United States in 2006 was estimated at 1,055,084. Additionally, there are an estimated 126,421 residents abroad also waiting for employment-based U.S. legal permanent residence, adding up to a worldwide total of 1,181,505.

    • Using data from the New Immigrant Survey, the authors find that, in 2003, approximately one in five new legal immigrants in the United States and about one in three employment-based new legal immigrants either planned to leave the United States or were uncertain about remaining. The authors had no data on how many foreign nationals have actually returned to their homelands.

      “Given that the U.S. comparative advantage in the global economy is in creating knowledge and applying it to business, it behooves the country to consider how we might adjust policies to reduce the immigration backlog, encourage innovative foreign minds to remain in the country, and entice new innovators to come,” said Robert Litan, vice president of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation.