Mullen: U.S. turns away world's best brains

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Getting a visa to earn a master's degree at the University of Utah was the easy part for Chetan Soni. Now that the 27-year-old India native is a civil engineer working in South Jordan, the real challenge to stay in this country begins.

"It was really not so hard to get my visa for school," says Soni, who came to Salt Lake City in December 2003 knowing only "that it is very cold." He was hired in September by MWH Global, an international engineering firm with offices in 33 countries. Soni is consulting on wastewater treatment projects.

"My company has said it will sponsor my green card [a work visa]," says Soni. "However, green card processing for applicants from India and China is now taking seven to eight years. And my current visa is valid for a maximum of six years. So I may have to go back to my country, then return and apply again. It's a big problem I am anticipating."

The wave of undocumented workers slipping over the border from the south seems to capture most media and political concern these days, but Soni and thousands like him can't be overlooked. He represents a more obscure but growing group of immigrants: the science, engineering and high-tech experts in the world who want to make a life here.

In Utah alone, 49 percent of all medical scientists, 30 percent of astronomers and physicists and 24 percent of physical scientists are foreign born.

On Wednesday at the U., the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the school's Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) and its International Center sponsored a discussion about the roadblocks U.S. immigration policy poses in attracting technology and talent to Utah from around the world.

Fueled by job protectionism, political grandstanding and post-9/11 restrictions like the Patriot Act, immigration reform is squeezing some of the world's best brain power right out of this country. Global changes in technology and economics keep speeding along while lumbering U.S. immigration policies try to keep pace.

"It's become clear that homeland security and economic security cannot be at odds with each other," says Benjamin Johnson, director of the Immigration Policy Center at the Washington, D.C.-based AILA. "Businesses can't keep putting up with the delays of immigration policy. It's really time to get out of the mind-set of being tough [on immigration] and start getting smart."

What about Americans, you say. The decline in our home-grown brain power is startling. Our natives are not pursuing science and engineering degrees in the numbers needed to meet employment demands. This is partly due to sheer numbers, says Pamela Perlich, senior research economist with the U.'s BEBR. The baby boom peaked in 1980, making the current college-age crop of 18- to 21-year-olds in the U.S. and Utah "a flat demographic," Perlich says.

"Even in Utah this is the case," Perlich notes, wryly.

Meanwhile, foreign-born students - especially those seeking graduate degrees and post-doctoral research spots are lining up to immigrate. The same goes for researchers seeking private sector jobs in the sciences, medicine, pharmacology, engineering and computer technology.

But they will wait only so long. New Zealand, Ireland, the United Kingdom and other industrialized countries are winning many candidates the U.S. turns away.

Yet Lorna Rogers Burgess, a Salt Lake City immigration attorney, has files filled with immigration woes stretching back to the mid-'90s - long before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Keeping these applicants in limbo has enormous implications for U.S. economic prosperity and our long-held position as King of the World.

"We are still the premiere economy of the world," says Johnson. "But how do we build a premiere immigration system that will benefit us in the long run?

Talking tough about immigration is sexy, but it isn't bringing many brains to our shores.

Getting smarter may just save us from turning very dumb.