* Engineers, scientists leave amid long waits, uncertainty
* Silicon Valley politicians, businessmen call for change
* Congress leaders meet Obama on immigration this week
By David Lawsky
SAN FRANCISCO, June 23 Silicon Valley is facing
a brain drain of high-achieving foreign-born students, more of
whom are leaving in the face of a chilly local immigration
environment in a trend experts say will hurt U.S. high-tech
industry competitiveness in the long run.
A more attractive employment environment overseas and a bad
local economy are increasingly prompting graduates to head home
in search of rosier prospects. This is depriving the Valley --
often called the cradle of global tech innovation -- the fresh
blood it needs to remain at the vanguard of hot new industries
such as clean technology.
"I believe we are going to innovate our way out of the
economic woes we have, and in order to do that you need
innovators," Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat
who chairs the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said
"It means not sending out people who are innovators who
want to become Americans," said Lofgren, one of the
congressional leaders who will meet this week to discuss the
matter with President Barack Obama.
More than half the start-ups that emerged from 1995 to 2005
in Silicon Valley -- the area near Stanford University in
Northern California that spawned the likes of Intel and Apple
-- had a founder who was a foreign-born national, according to
a 2007 study by Duke University professor Vivek Wadhwa.
But many foreigners now face a long wait for permanent
residence and have come to believe that will never change.
Ken Wilcox, president of Silicon Valley Bank in Santa
Clara, said the United States now faces an imperative to help
talented foreigners stay.
NOT ENOUGH U.S. SCIENTISTS, ENGINEERS
"We're simply not producing, in relative terms, significant
numbers of engineers or scientists from people who have already
been here for a number of generations," said Wilcox, who
specializes in helping the start-ups that gave his bank its
name. "You've got to bring them in from the outside."
Foreign nationals earn half the masters degrees and 71
percent of the doctorates in electrical engineering at U.S.
universities, according to the House immigration subcommittee.
But they are increasingly unlikely to stay. Duke
University's Wadwha said the U.S. lost 100,000 highly educated
foreigners over the last 20 years, but faces accelerating
losses of 100,000 to 200,000 in the next five years.
"The United States is experiencing a brain drain and
doesn't even know what that means," he said.
The combination of better job climates in India and China
and seemingly interminable waits for U.S. permanent resident
status has changed the calculus for most students, he said.
Wadhwa said 60 of the 65 foreign engineers among the 120 he
helped train this year to be business executives are leaving
for India, China, and Turkey. He conducted a Facebook survey
and discovered similar results across the United States.
"This is absolutely a new development," he said.
Aman Kapoor, head of the lobbying group Immigration Voice,
said people are starting to leave in higher numbers because
they have come to believe Congress will not fix the problem.
"They are giving up. And when they go they are taking their
jobs with them," he said. "In time, Silicon Valley will no
longer be in Northern California."
The problem exasperates area leaders. Tim Draper, a partner
in the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, expressed
the view in strong terms.
"As far as I am concerned, when someone receives a
technological BS, MS or PhD from a top university, and they are
starting to pay U.S. taxes, we should make them a citizen on
the spot," he said in an email.
That's not likely to happen soon.
Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National
Foundation for American Policy, a Washington think tank, said
that it will be difficult to pass reform legislation as long as
Americans are losing jobs. In California, the unemployment rate
hit a record 11.5 percent in May.
"It could be the death knell of high-skilled professionals
coming into the United States," Anderson said.
And as long as highly trained foreigners do not know if
they can remain permanently, they will not buy houses, or start
companies and create jobs, he and others said.
Lofgren said one man she knows got his PhD and
post-doctoral training but is cooling his heels waiting for a
green card. It could take years.
"The guy is in his late 30s and still in limbo ... I can
understand that at some point you have to make a life for
yourself someplace. You can't just be on hold."
(Editing by Eric Walsh)