This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
When it comes to immigration, US policymakers have never been shy about which types of foreign workers they want living and working in the United States. In his 2013 State of the Union address, for example, President Barack Obama listed attracting “the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy” as a key tenet of immigration reform.
This sentiment is widespread among policymakers. They want doctors and engineers, not dishwashers and landscapers.
But while this kind of immigration can pay dividends for a small pool of educated migrants and the companies who hire them, it produces losers as well. Like their outsourcing counterparts, some US corporations use imported workers as a way to keep wages down as well as to fill their labor demand. And what happens to the countries these educated individuals leave behind is almost never discussed.
The term “brain drain” was first coined by the British Royal Society to describe the migration of scientists and technologists from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada in the 1950s and ’60s. Today, the term has come to explain the large-scale emigration of educated individuals from the countries of their birth. When a nation exhausts its human capital, economic development is impeded, leaving the citizens who remain in dire straits.
Despite having an entire agency—USAID—that promotes the development of human capital abroad, US immigration policies can have just the opposite effect.
Bait and Switch
The US immigration structure operates on a visa system. The government issues H-1B visas to foreign workers with specialized skills in science, technology and medicine, among many other fields, allowing them to legally reside and work in the United States. This particular visa is popular among large corporations with the resources to pay the visa fees for their foreign applicants. By spending a little extra on the hiring process for these workers, they can net higher profits by paying their immigrant employees less than their US-born counterparts. More than 80 percent of H-1B visa holders, in fact, are paid lower wages than US citizens in comparable positions.
The tech industry in particular is notorious for its abuse of H-1B visas. In 2012, after claiming that it could not fill 6,000 domestic jobs due to a lack of available visas and qualified American workers, Microsoft proposed a solution. If the US government would increase the number of visas available by 20,000, Microsoft said, the company would agree to pay $10,000 for each applicant—nearly four times the usual fee. The revenue earned would go toward funding STEM education programs in the United States.