Monday, July 8, 2013

The high-skilled immigration debate hits C&EN

This week, Andrea Widener and Linda Wang of C&EN tackle the high-skilled immigration debate. The 4 articles are definitely worth reading, if only to get a flavor of the statistics and scope of the debate. They are as follows:
The statistics: A short overview from the Widener story:
  • Just 2.2% of approved H1B visas for fiscal year 2011 were for "mathematical and physical sciences", which includes chemists. 
  • The "pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing" sector accounted for 0.7% of H1B applications; by contrast, the computer systems design sector accounted for 39.5%. 
  • Doctoral degree holders (from abroad) accounted for just 11% of total applications, with 83% holding just a bachelor's or a master's degree. 
  • 64.8% of H1B visas holders were from either India (58%) or China (8.8%). 
I was surprised to see the story lead off with a reminder of the relatively high unemployment rate of ACS members for 2012 at 4.2%. 

Wouldn't it be nice to get some facts on STEM exits?: From a former university president, a comment about students who leave:
What is truly important is to have an immigration system that allows the best and brightest to come to the U.S. and stay here, says James Duderstadt, former University of Michigan president who has been on several National Academy of Sciences panels that recommend immigration reform. Most of the industrialized world has already made it easier for highly skilled scientists to immigrate, he says. The U.S. has not. 
“We end up paying a lot for foreign students’ graduate education and then we show them the door,” Duderstadt says. “These people with advanced skills are worth their weight in gold.”
I would really like to know if/how this happens. I know that qualified chemists end up going back to their countries of origin due to terrible immigration circumstances (I have seen it myself!), but it seems to be oft-rumored and relatively few sourced statistics exist. 

[If these people are worth their weight in gold, why are we paying so poorly for postdocs?] 

Bravely done, Air Products: I was surprised to see an actual chemical company decide to comment on the issue on the record, and here we are:
It is those highly skilled workers that the chemical company Air Products & Chemicals seeks out. “Our objective is to find the right talent and to be blind to the circumstances around them,” says Martha Collins, director of the Global Technology Centers at the company. And if the perfect employee happens to need a visa, the company will work with them to make that happen.
I see that Air Products did indeed hire a couple of senior research chemists at 95k via the H1B system back in 2009 (search here for "Air Products" and 2009, 2nd page of results); seems to me that it's a fair wage for Allentown, PA, but what do I know? 

An unexpected comment: Lamar Smith is better known for some of his more controversial statements about science and science funding. I hadn't heard about this one: 
And some degree fields don’t need more workers. The life sciences are one of the sectors where wages are falling in most analyses. Last year it was specifically excluded from a bill expanding H-1B visas offered by the Judiciary Committee chair at the time, Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas). The bill passed the House but was not taken up in the Senate and died at the end of 2012.
I would not have expected that. Can't say I disagree, really. 

Finally, the human toll: From Linda Wang's article, a sad comment about international Ph.D. students wanting to go home for a visit: 
And going home to visit? Forget it. Pius O. Adelani, a postdoc in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, who is from Nigeria, has not returned home since he arrived in the U.S. in 2007 to start a Ph.D. program. He knew there was a chance he could be denied a reentry visa, which would have meant that he’d have to terminate his Ph.D. training. “I didn’t want to take that risk,” he says. Now that he’s completed his Ph.D., he is hoping to visit his father and siblings in Nigeria soon.
There are a lot of sides to the STEM immigration debate; the corporations, the universities and the individual US worker all have their conflicting priorities. But it seems rather unkind of our system to seemingly deny students and postdoctoral fellows the ability to go home and see their family. I would really hope that there would be legislation or regulatory change to address this problem (why haven't the universities taken this up?). Surely, we can all agree that this, of all things, needs to change. 

All in all, a good effort from C&EN. Worth a read. 


  1. If I was worth my weight in gold, I wouldn't need to work another day! Not saying that I'm fat... just that I'm kind of tall, and have muscles, and uh... am big-boned.

  2. Also, when my wife did her PhD (we weren't married back then), she didn't go back to her country for five years. At the beginning the reentry visa was a problem and it was not a given that she would get it especially since she had to start a PhD a year later while they were running security checks. It was a lot easier for the Chinese actually to go back for a visit. But later on, you needed to get a new visa and that could take often at least a month and as much as a few months and the boss didn't want her taking that much of a break from the PhD. So, it's definitely a real problem.

  3. - Just 2.2%? That's 1430 H1-b's. How many of them were for chemists? How many fields are included in the category?
    - 0.7% of all applications is 455 or about 20% of new chem Ph.D's. Application does not equal granted visa.
    - 11% is a bs number. 39.5% of all applications were for programmers, no Ph.D's there so 11% instantly becomes 18%, and I am sure the number could be further adjusted by excluding other fields

    As usually ACS's use of the statistics is so self-serving that I suspect they in fact understand it.

    1. Lies.... damned lies... statistics.... something something.....

  4. How accurate is this statement: “We end up paying a lot for foreign students’ graduate education”? I'm told that in other fields, universities are making bank off of foreign students paying full price for tuition.

    1. I believe your statement ("making bank") is accurate for undergraduate tuition. For the most part, I understand that graduate education in the sciences typically costs the university something (tuition payments, covered by the departments, research funds, etc.) Yes, some of that is made back via grants, but I suspect a minority of overall Ph.D.-granting universities are self-sustaining (e.g. "profitable" with a bunch of caveats.)

      That said, if STEM Ph.D. granting institutions decide to turn themselves into tuition-accepting green card machines as Ron Hira predicts at the end of the C&EN article, it could be quite the little problem.

    2. I do not know a single Chinese grad student/post doc who has returned to China. I know tons who have stayed in the US in academic science, trying to work up in the system as research associates/scientists. None of them seem to want to go back willingly. Just saying.

    3. NMH, like the saying goes, 'the plural of anecdote is not data'. In my PhD group, there were three foreign postdocs when I was there: one from China, one from German and one from India. The Chinese is now in academia in China, the German is in academia in Germany and the Indian is working as a scientist in India. Plus, out of the people I keep up on via LinkedIn, there was an Indian grad student in my year who is now back in India and some Turks who are now back in Turkey. Just saying.

  5. On one hand it is accurate - for the universities it is at worst a zero sum, and most likely profitable enterprise, but eventually the support comes from the Federal budget. Of course the same holds true for the American students, and as NMH above noted, very few foreign students go back, and not only Chinese - Indians, Russians, even Canadians - everyone I have ever met stayed here (I do know someone who left, but that person landed in a small, nice and rich European country, and not the one he was born in)

    1. This was supposed to go in the previous thread.

  6. USCIS is an epic disaster, by far the most incompetent, Kafkaesque bureaucracy I have ever encountered, beating out the second-place Japanese DMV by a factor of twenty. My wife and I (or my employer) have spent nearly $40,000 over the years obtaining and protecting her green card if you include lost wages, and wasted hundreds of hours of our time filling out paperwork and weeks of our paid vacation travelling in order to abide by USCIS edicts. Let’s compare the US system to the Japanese system

    1: The Japanese filing fees are ~20% of that of USCIS, and you almost never would need a lawyer at a $1000 per application as you might in the US, as the application process and documentation requirements are substantially simpler.

    2: Japanese processing times are about half as long

    3: Japanese allow you to file for visas as long as you are in the country legally. You would never have to leave Japan in order to file for a new visa, or even your first one if you were from a visa-exempt country. You could land as a tourist and then apply, which is useful for fiancées, or people looking for a job, for example. USCIS, in contrast, makes you file outside the US and then wait forever. Depending on your situation, you may have to leave the US to file for a new visa when your old one is nearing its expiration, and go through the wait again. This is a big problem for students as others have noted.

    1. 4: If you have a long-term Japanese visa or permanent residency, you are free to leave the country for up to one year, no questions asked. If you will be outside of Japan longer, you need an $80 re-entry permit that is basically automatically granted and only takes a ~30 minute stop by the immigration office to obtain. You are then free to stay outside of Japan as much as you like, as long as you pay your taxes. USCIS, in contrast, flips its lid if a visa-holder or PR leaves the country for more than six months. Longer stays require travel permits, which must be obtained in advance (and require more than a month), expire frequently (and require you return to the US both to apply AND to do biometrics a month or so later), and cost a fortune. Even for stays of less than six months, they might hound you and/or take your green card or visa away if you have too many medium-length stays abroad.

      5: If you come to Japan on a family-based visa, you can work from day one. USCIS, in contrast, requires that you file for a work permit after you land, usually simultaneously with a green card application. The work permit takes around four months to receive, and the applicant cannot leave the US without voiding their green card application. Hence, they are forcibly unemployed for four months.

      6: For family-based immigrants, Japan has an intermediate state between permanent residency and, well, nothing. Family-based visas last 1-5 years, are easy and fast to renew, and provide full work and travel rights. Many Japanese family-based immigrants do not even bother with obtaining full permanent residency, as getting a new visa is easy. This is also very convenient for family members who only want to live in Japan for a medium-term span, or move back and forth between Japan and somewhere else. The US, in contrast, has a system where family-based visas lead directly into permanent residency, the visa itself typically lasting only 90 days and not normally extendable. It is expected that such immigrants will apply for permanent residency within that 90-day span, and the application itself buys them another year. USCIS then throws a fit when these people want to leave the country for any reason, because they are supposed to be “permanent”. There is no good option for the foreign spouses of globally mobile American citizens. They either get PR and defend it from USCIS’s attacks due to the immigrants lack of continual presence in the US (that is what has hammered my wife and I), or you go through the visa process each time you move in and out, with its year’s long delays, forced unemployment, etc. Both methods cost a fortune.

      That being said, Japan is heck for illegal immigrants. Get busted at the airport on yoru way out of the country for having overstayed your visa one day? Expect to be jailed, strip searched, fined several thousand dollars, deported at your own (or your sponsor’s) expense, and banned from entering the country for five years. Note that all police WILL ask for proof of your status any time you interact with them, and that you will not be able to get a driver’s license, health insurance, a credit card, a bank account, or live or work in anywhere but the most shady of situations without legal status.

      The combination of easy legal immigration and difficulty for illegal immigrants leads to Japan having an estimated one illegal immigrant for every thirty legal immigrants. The ratio in the US is more like one to three. Regardless of your opinion on how we should handle illegal immigration, I do think the Japanese example at least proves that if you are willing to make it tough enough on illegal immigrants and simple enough for legal immigrants, illegal immigration will be substantially decreased.

    2. 1. Hey, Chad: thanks for taking the time to write about that - very interesting.
      2. Perhaps it is easier to cut down on illegal immigration when you are an island nation? Hard to say.

    3. So Chad, how long does it take to become naturalized in Japan?

    4. You can't really compare ratios like that in the US and Japan if the latter has a negligible amount of immigrants in the first place. It might be a better system, but it was set up to deal with a small amount of people.

      Plus Japan is screwed in its own special way as a result of its demographics and it represents a test case for the future of Western societies. If this Abenomics thing doesn't work out, then the country is entering uncharted territory with regards to how a modern society can function with negative population and economic growth.

  7. "Hey, Chad: thanks for taking the time to write about that - very interesting.
    2. Perhaps it is easier to cut down on illegal immigration when you are an island nation? Hard to say."

    When you are dealing with USCIS and the Japanese DMV at the same time, writing about it is therapy. It's not really hard to sneak into Japan. Most illegals here are visa overstays, I believe, but if you wanted to enter illegally, there are a ton of little fishing boats in the sea between China, Korea, and Japan. There is no way they could all be tracked or inspected.

    "So Chad, how long does it take to become naturalized in Japan?"

    Actually, the minimum time is only five years since your arrival before you can apply. In the US, outside of some specific exceptions (spouses of citizens), it is five years *since you received your green card*. Since even in the best case there is about a year long gap between zero and receiving your green card, it is at least six years in the US. However, it is unlikely you can get naturalization in Japan after five years, as they really expect strong ties to Japan and have a pretty high language barrier. Presuming you are a highly educated chemist and have a commensurate job, that would help a lot in getting both PR or naturalizing. That being said, there are only a handful of advantages to getting PR or naturalizing in Japan rather than simply hanging out on 3-5 year visas. Obviously you can vote here (but no longer where you came from), and could be a bureaucrat or politician. It is also easier to get loans for things like houses. That's pretty much it.

    "You can't really compare ratios like that in the US and Japan if the latter has a negligible amount of immigrants in the first place."

    Relative to the size of its population, immigration to Japan is a bit less than 10% of what it is in the US. Few people try to come here, and the Japanese allow in even fewer. But they don't harass those they chose, like USCIS.

    I generally see immigration as a two-step process for the government.

    1: Choosing a group of applicants out of a large pool, as more people want in than we are willing to accept. This process needs to be fair, transparent, and fast as possible

    2: Regulating and documenting the chosen immigrants as the arrive in and live in the US. This should be as simple and cheap as possible while maintaining necessary record-keeping and security

    Unfortunately, the immigration bills before Congress are completely ignoring #2, despite the fact that USCIS is a disaster in this regards. Japan may have issues with #1, but they nail #2.

  8. Most of the foreign grad students I worked with didn't go home during their studies, but not bc of visa issues, rather their PI would not give them the time off as traveling to India, China, UK, etc is not easily done around a long weekend lol.