Immigrant Exodus: Why America is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent

Vivek Wadhwa has become something of a media darling in the United States for championing immigration reform in this very political season.

He uses every opportunity he gets to warn Americans that they are making their economic downturn worse by failing to fix the visa mess and driving away immigrants who have historically been the entrepreneurs, engineers and technology mavens who have made their country the ideas factory and entrepreneurial superpower of the world. As an immigrant student and successful entrepreneur himself, Wadhwa offers a sometimes first-hand, often second-hand view of the travails that immigrants have faced since the appetite for foreign techies died in the years after 9-11. Interestingly, in his view, the best days for the people he focuses on – traditionally referred to as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) graduates – were in the year leading up to the global scare that was Y2K. Geeks from all over the world, mainly Chinese and Indian, headed to America to fix Y2K (when it was feared that computer systems would crash in the rollover to a new millennium).

Most of this talent ended up in what came to be called Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay area, where the term IC came to refer to “Indian and Chinese” rather than the “integrated circuit” on which most computer technology was built. The author cites recent studies to show how this immigrant influx resulted in highly successful startups, a software bonanza, patents and scientific breakthroughs. These studies have shown that immigrants are “more than twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a business.”

In perhaps the most dramatic anecdotal evidence he cites, a 2011 study by the Partnership for a New American Economy showed that first-generation immigrants or their children had founding roles in over 40 per cent of Fortune 500 companies, with total revenues of over $4.2 trillion and 10 million employees worldwide.

In Wadhwa’s telling, several factors have contributed to the perfect storm now facing the U.S.: a broken visa system that humiliates and insults immigrants, booming economies in countries like China and India that are proving to be counter-magnets to their own nationals who had emigrated, and, increasingly, countries like Canada who are attracting science and technology students who would normally have preferred to go to the U.S. for their graduate studies. In essence, Wadhwa says, America needs these immigrants more than they need America.

On a side note, Canada generally earns high praise from Wadhwa for its nimble immigration policy that enables it to target specific skill sets for newcomers based on economic need. He also notes that Canada has seen a significant uptick in the number of undergraduate and graduate students entering its science and engineering streams.

In the final chapter of this very business-like, no-frills book, the lecturer on entrepreneurship and public policy at such eminent institutions as Duke, Stanford and Emory Universities, offers seven specific recommendations to stem the tide of immigrants fleeing America. Most of these have to do with changes to the H1-B visa that has traditionally been used by STEM immigrants to enter the U.S.

However, he holds out little hope: Wadhwa calls immigration reform a “third-rail issue” in American politics, taking a backseat to bank bailouts and dubious wars.