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Hanna: Foreign STEM Workers Can Help Rebuild Economy

More than 30 years ago, Nagappa Ravindra came to America from India to obtain a master’s degree in engineering. After a nine-month process, he obtained his green card. Now, he’s a citizen and owns an engineering firm in upstate New York that employs about 90 people. Today, a story like Ravindra’s could not easily be repeated — obtaining a green card in his line of work could take eight years.

He told his story last week before the Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce, which investigated why small businesses are having difficulty filling lucrative job openings in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and examined possible solutions.

Two unfilled STEM jobs exist for every STEM worker in the U.S. looking for work. The trend is expected to get worse. Our nation’s STEM workforce shortage is affecting the viability of small firms in the marketplace.

In 1980, nearly half of Ravindra’s 220 classmates from the Indian Institute of Technology came to the U.S. to pursue higher education. They brought dreams of a better life. Ninety percent remained here and are now business owners, CEOs, deans and educators.

What would those same foreign students be called today? “Castaways.” That’s the term used by John Tyler of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Tyler told the subcommittee that other countries are welcoming our “American castaways” in reference to the number of foreign STEM workers our government closes the door on each year.

Foreign students educated at our universities are turned into another nation’s entrepreneurs — and our competitors. India, China, Canada and Australia are aggressively pursuing these young people in the hope that they will bring the next great idea to their shores, along with the jobs that stem from innovation.

We need to educate our own population and encourage the study of STEM subjects from an early age. But creating a deep and broad pipeline of domestic STEM teachers, students and workers will take many years, so we need to change our immigration laws now to allow more foreign STEM workers to fill immediate job openings.

So how can we stop turning U.S.-educated foreign job seekers into our own competitors? We can increase the H-1B visa cap, or establish an automatic visa for foreign students that graduate from a U.S. college with an advanced STEM degree, or pursue another overhaul altogether. But if Congress undertakes an immigration overhaul without permitting small businesses to access the qualified STEM workers they are clamoring for now, we will miss an opportunity to revitalize our economy. We should welcome foreign nationals who are better, faster and smarter than their peers.

Look no further than 29-year-old Kunal Bahl who received engineering and business degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. He landed a job at Microsoft, but his H-1B visa expired in 2007. So, he took his tech talent home and founded Snapdeal, a website similar to e-Bay that employs about 1,000 people — in India.

Our economy is struggling and these are the technology jobs we’re sending overseas. Why would a bright student stay in the U.S. in immigration limbo when other countries and investors are calling? The answer is: She won’t.

Congress should urgently pursue a better high-skilled immigration policy while building up a long-term focus on STEM education here at home. Let us be the nation that creates success stories like Ravindra’s and not the place that closed the door on Bahl.

Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., serves as chairman of the Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce.

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