Per Country Visa Limits Lead to U.S. Loss of Foreign STEM Talent

A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research examines the impact of per country visa limits on the U.S.’s ability to attract and retain PhD STEM graduates from China and India.

U.S. law limits the number of people who can immigrate from a single country to the U.S. each year.   If the number of visa applications exceeds the limit, a wait list develops.   The two most populous countries of the world have exceeded the numerical limit for years, resulting in a continually growing wait list for highly educated and skilled workers in STEM professions from China and India.    To illustrate, Chinese citizens with advanced degrees who will reach the top of the waiting list and be eligible to finally immigrate in November, 2018 began their immigration process before June 15, 2015.  Similarly situated Indian citizens began their immigration process before May 22, 2009, over nine years ago.

The NBER working paper, The Impact of Permanent Residency Delays for STEM PhDs: Who Leaves and Why, examines the drop in the number of Chinese and Indian PhD graduates from U.S. graduate schools who stay in the U.S. to work upon completion of their studies, and finds that the longer the delay in getting residency, the more the U.S. retention rate for these graduates declines.    As the abstract of the working paper notes

We conclude that per-country limits play a significant role in constraining the supply of highly skilled STEM workers in the US economy.

This has economic repercussions since native U.S. citizens are underrepresented in graduate level STEM studies, but STEM fields play a critical role in U.S. economic growth.   In addition, a Cato Institute analysis notes that Chinese and Indian STEM advanced degree professionals are high wage earners, and our economy loses their individual tax and spending contributions as well.

Another impending casualty of the wait list are the spouses of these individuals.  As we have highlighted previously, under an Obama-era rule, many of these individuals’ spouses now have work authorization.   The Trump Administration has signaled its intent to revoke that rule, and with it, their ability to be productive and contribute while they wait for years with their STEM graduate spouses for available immigrant visas.   This is another factor pushing talent we need out of the U.S. to other countries with more rational immigration systems.

The current per country quotas were created in 1990.  It is high time for Congress to revisit and reform or eliminate them.