Brain Drain and the Politics of Immigration

brain-drain-immigration-skilled-educated-workers-h1b-visa

Some U.S. corporations import skilled workers as a way to keep wages down as well as to fill their labor demand. And what happens to the countries these educated individuals leave behind is almost never discussed. (Image: Jimmy Hilario / Flickr)

This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and TheNation.com.

When it comes to immigration, U.S. policymakers have never been shy about which types of foreign workers they want living and working in the United States. In his 2013 State of the Union address, for example, President Barack Obama listed attracting “the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy” as a key tenet of immigration reform.

This sentiment is widespread among policymakers. They want doctors and engineers, not dishwashers and landscapers.

But while this kind of immigration can pay dividends for a small pool of educated migrants and the companies who hire them, it produces losers as well. Like their outsourcing counterparts, some U.S. corporations use imported workers as a way to keep wages down as well as to fill their labor demand. And what happens to the countries these educated individuals leave behind is almost never discussed.

The term “brain drain” was first coined by the British Royal Society to describe the migration of scientists and technologists from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the term has come to explain the large-scale emigration of educated individuals from the countries of their birth. When a nation exhausts its human capital, economic development is impeded, leaving the citizens who remain in dire straits.

Despite having an entire agency — USAID — that promotes the development of human capital abroad, U.S. immigration policies can have just the opposite effect.

Bait and Switch

The U.S. immigration structure operates on a visa system. The U.S. government issues H-1B visas to foreign workers with specialized skills in science, technology, and medicine, among many other fields, allowing them to legally reside and work in the United States. This particular visa is popular among large corporations with the resources to pay the visa fees for their foreign applicants. By spending a little extra on the hiring process for these workers, they can net higher profits by paying their immigrant employees less than their U.S.-born counterparts. More than 80 percent of H-1B visa holders, in fact, are paid lower wages than U.S. citizens in comparable positions.

The tech industry in particular is notorious for its abuse of H-1B visas. In 2012, after claiming that it could not fill 6,000 domestic jobs due to a lack of available visas and qualified American workers, Microsoft proposed a solution. If the U.S. government would increase the number of visas available by 20,000, Microsoft said, the company would agree to pay $10,000 for each applicant — nearly four times the usual fee. The revenue earned would go towards funding STEM education programs in the United States.

Microsoft’s bid garnered support from the STEM Coalition, an organization made up of corporations, educational non-profits, and some labor advocates that Microsoft is a member of. The coalition signed a letter expressing support for the visa increase as Microsoft approached a group of senators to craft the bill. It was a noble solution to the alleged problem, but the final draft of the legislation turned out to be vastly different from what Microsoft had initially described. In what was billed as a “classic bait and switch,” the bill ended up calling for an increase of 300,000 available visas — some 15 times what Microsoft had proposed — with Microsoft only paying a paltry fee of $1,825 per visa, or less than 20 percent of what the company had promised.

The tech industry is not the only sector with a shortage of workers — many parts of the United States, especially rural areas, suffer a shortage of physicians. Part of the problem is that the United States simply does not train the number of doctors it needs — annually, 50 percent of medical school applicants are rejected despite the fact that many of them have stellar GPAs. The steep cost of medical school deters other applicants from even applying. This creates an attractive vacuum for well-trained and ambitious doctors from developing countries — as of 2010, over a quarter of all U.S. physicians were born outside the country.

What’s Left Behind

The increase of available H-1B visas allows for highly educated foreigners to pursue a more prosperous career in the United States. But what does it mean for the countries they leave behind?

In India, home to the large majority of H-1B visa recipients, many medical students opt to study abroad because of rising costs and limited capacity at their public institutions. The medical brain drain in India not only reduces the number of doctors available for care, but it also removes the people needed to push for healthcare reforms.

Considered the most privatized health system in the world, India’s public health system is made up of mainly rural health centers that lack basic infrastructure, medicines, and staff. India spends only 0.9 percent of its GDP on health care, which promotes a large private healthcare industry that remains inaccessible to the poor. The wealthy can afford to be treated at a state-of-the-art hospital for a stomach ache, while the poor must walk long miles to receive treatment for sicknesses and sometimes discover that the medicine they need is unavailable. The shortage of doctors in the country is staggering: there are only six doctors for every 10,000 patients. People in need of medical attention may spend days waiting in line for tests or drugs because there are simply not enough doctors and nurses available to tend to their medical needs.

India is not the only country that suffers from brain drain, and the loss of human capital does not only affect the medical industry. Zimbabwe is struggling to keep its education sector from collapsing after losing 45,000 teachers in 2010 alone. Haiti has lost more college graduates than any other country in the world. Brain drain is occurring in every region of the developing world.

Plugging the Drain

Ensuring that skilled workers have opportunities to flourish at home is ultimately a challenge for source countries, not the richer countries that absorb them when they leave. But the loss of brain power to the United States and other developed countries creates an unfortunate cycle for poorer countries: educated individuals migrate, leaving their home countries’ tax base and infrastructure in poor shape. The weakened infrastructure in turn means that more people will leave, driving the cycle onward.

In order to solve this problem, the governments of developing nations should strive to create incentives for their educated workers to stay home and use their abilities to create a better and more sustainable society. Perhaps developed countries can provide some assistance through educational partnerships or other forms of cooperation. But because freedom of movement is an inalienable human right, neither the United States nor the source countries can (or should) simply prohibit skilled workers from moving around the globe.

Meanwhile, the United States should reconsider its own prejudices about foreign workers. In their drive to welcome skilled laborers to the United States, U.S. policymakers often overlook the value of unskilled and semiskilled migrants. The construction, agricultural, and homecare industries, for example, all rely heavily on the labor of a foreign-born workforce. These are seldom the people praised by pundits as the “best and brightest,” but they’re vital to the U.S. economy and perform valuable work for their fellow Americans.

Immigration can be a blessing for all who are touched by it. But to reap the benefits, we need an honest accounting of the costs. How can countries be expected to manage brain drain when all the plumbers have left?

Nathalie Baptiste is a Haitian-American contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She holds a BA and MA in International Studies and writes about Latin America and the Caribbean. You can follow her on Twitter at @nhbaptiste
  • RMG

    Although
    you analysis is interesting, it is NOTHING new. You can find more deeply
    discussion on that subject even in YouTube, TV programs, etc.

    Also, you seem to miss a major point: The consequences of importing cheap labor
    force into STEAM professions is that it discourage national to pursue such subjects, as STEAM
    wages becomes very low. This force nationals to pursue more administrative-oriented
    jobs, like business administration, etc and to discriminate foreign born to get
    into those jobs (afraid that they will eventually do what STEAM jobs become). In
    turn, this becomes a two-fold problem: Technology and new companies are usually
    related, so it becomes less likely that nationals can become new high-tech entrepreneur
    while nationals, with lack of foreign culture, have harder to understand foreign
    cultures while administrating global assets.

  • ben chifley

    Study Finds Free Trade With China Lowered American Manufacturing By 29.6 Percent‏
    http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/01/07/1407861/study-finds-free-trade-with-china-lowered-american-manufacturing-by-296-percent/

    WOW WHAT A LOAD OF FUCKING BULLSHIT!!!!!!!!!!!

    A Nonprofit Lender Revives the Hopes of Subprime Borrowers‏
    MIT: The Economic Benefits of Immigration‏
    http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ib_18.htm#.Uo_21dJFYud

    Other Good Libertarian Links – MIT
    web.mit.edu/libertarians/www/goodlinks.html‎

    Good Links for Libertarians … of libertarian stuff (focus on electronic privacy/rights) · LP of Canada · The CATO Institute, America’s “hottest” libertarian think tank.

  • ben chifley

    El Salvador: The Truth Commission and the Jesuit Massacre – Truthout
    http://www.truth-out.org/speakout/item/2462‎

    Aug 2, 2011 – … 02 August 2011 08:45 By Jennifer Nerby, Council on Hemispheric Affairs | Report …. By Nathalie Baptiste, Foreign Policy in Focus | Report …
    422 – Truthout
    truth-out.org/news?page=14&limit=25&start=10525‎

    25+ items – Error. JUser: :_load: Unable to load user with ID: 346; JUser: …
    By Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times | Report
    After …
    By Robert Valencia, Council on Hemispheric Affairs | News Analysis

  • ben chifley

    YOU ARE PART OF RONALD REAGAN’S HEMISPHERIC AFFAIRS SCUMBAG LYING PIECE OF SHIT WORSE THAN ALEX JONES AND GLENN BECK!!!

    Inter-American Foundation during the Reagan era

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/ind

    george carlin ronald reagan
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

    Right wing bullshit published by a so called liberal SOROS!!!!!!!!!!!

    Fukuyama is one of the signers of the January 26, 1998, Project for the New American Century (PNAC)‏

    The Disease of Short-Termism

    How “the end of history” is precipitating the end of the planet.

    http://fpif.org/disease-short-

    Maddow: Project For A New American Century IS REAL! pt.1

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

  • ben chifley

    CAN’T GET A JOB AT FAUX NEWS?

    News Corporation Hits The GOP Fundraising Circuit‏

    http://mediamatters.org/blog/2014/02/26/fox-news-hits-the-gop-fundraising-circuit/198222

    TOOK A JOB WITH SOROS SPREADING RIGHT WING LIBERTARIAN BULLSHIT WITH A MORAL TWIST!!!!!

  • ben chifley

    Ronald Reagan Describes Milton Friedman‏
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7HtZtwyn_c

    Milton Friedman’s k-percent rule =’s print money‏
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedman's_k-percent_rule

    The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century‏
    http://www.cato.org/events/beijing-consensus-how-chinas-authoritarian-model-will-dominate-twenty-first-century

    I”M NOT A COMMUNIST I”M A RONALD REAGAN DEMOCRAT!!!!!!

    Obama and the Reagan Wing of the Democratic Party
    http://www.thenation.com/blog/obama-and-reagan-wing-democratic-party

  • ben chifley

    DELETE COMMENTS YOU ARE A DISGRACE!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Tim_Rothchilds

    there absolutely is ZERO shortage of STEM workers in the U.S.; we graduate way, way, way more young people in engineering disciplines each year, then there are available positions. This is a lie that is has been told again and again and again, ad infinitum, by tech companies looking to continue the flood of cheap-and-easy H1B job robbers. They repeat this fake “shortage” lie so many times, that it takes on a life of its own, with one article referencing this falsehood, referencing another, and so in. Bottom line: there is not shortage, and H1B was never intended as a vehicle to replace Americans with indians – but that is 100% what it’s become today. The solution: end H1b and L1 right now, stop the lies, stop the job robbing, let india figure out its own solutions to its domestic employment issues, American tax citizens are not being taxed for the purposes of fixing india’s social problems. END H1B NOW!!!!

  • Wakjob

    15 years of job robbing by Asian wannabes has brought the US economy to its knees. The last thing we need is more NON-PERFORMERS who have failed to keep the US econ going as promised. Stop the cheap labor lies, the foreign lobbying by NASSCOM, and the betrayal of the American people by Congress.