Obama win dampens 'American dream' for Indian graduates
Romney had promised green cards for all foreign students graduating in science and tech from US varsities; Obama not ready to go that far; But reversing brain drain now easier. Charu Sudan Kasturi reports.india Updated: Nov 09, 2012 13:52 IST
New York University (NYU) computer science graduate Antara Patel likes Barack Obama's Chicago drawl and powerful oratory, and agrees with him on American foreign policy and Wall Street reforms. But on Tuesday she was hoping for a Mitt Romney win.
The Mumbai girl who graduated from NYU in 2011 is juggling two internships in New York as she hunts for an employer willing to hire her on a work visa before a 29-month stay she is legally allowed on her student visa expires next year. Romney in the White House could have saved her the trouble and removed a roadblock to employment.
The Republican candidate
permanent residency - popularly referred to as a Green Card -- to every foreign student who graduates with an "advanced degree" in science, math or engineering from a US university.
The promise in bold blue on Romney's website was barely discussed during the US presidential campaigns that focused on the domestic economy. But it represented a much firmer US move to retain highly skilled foreign scientists and engineers than the strategy followed by Obama since 2008. For thousands of Indian students like Patel, Romney's promise if implemented could have meant a surer route to the 'American dream.' But it would also have severely hurt India's efforts at reversing brain drain.
"His promise was a big deal for me and many Indian friends," Patel said. "It would have meant an end to the constant fear of a deadline dangling over one's head."
Over 100,000 Indian students join American universities each year. Most join postgraduate programmes in the sciences and engineering - the exact segment the US wants to retain after they graduate, to fill a fast growing shortage of skilled workers and entrepreneurs in these sectors. The US is projected to face a shortfall of 230,000 skilled science and engineering professionals by 2018.
At present, foreign graduates in science, technology engineering and medicine - commonly known as the STEM disciplines - can stay for up to 29 months after graduating in the US working on their student visas. This stint, known as the Optional Practical Training (OPT) window is just a year long for other disciplines and was extended by George W Bush when he was president for the STEM fields. Obama has continued the 29-month stint and expanded the sciences covered under it.
But though the OPT can be extended beyond 29 months in special cases, foreign graduates working in the US eventually need to either find a company willing to hire them on a work permit or need to get a Green Card.
"That's still a big hassle and often a wall that foreign students come up against when it comes to finding an employer," Satish Rajan, a San Francisco based immigration lawyer said.
Students working on the OPT are more vulnerable than permanent residents while negotiating pay and work conditions, making them lucrative employees for companies to hire as interns. Romney and the Republicans argue that extending the OPT hurts American full-time workers, who can be replaced by companies with foreign interns willing to work for lower wages.
But the same rationale that helps these fresh foreign graduates get internships works against them in seeking full-fledged employment, Rajan said.
"Employers are more comfortable hiring those who they know are guaranteed to be able to stay in the US for long," Rajan said. "It's a vicious cycle - you need a full-fledged job to stay here but you often don't get one if you can legally stay here in the first place."
The Romney proposal came at a time when more and more Indian graduates in the US have shown an interest in returning home, with the American economy gasping for breath and India now offering better industry and research opportunities than ever before.
In 2010, the human resource development ministry came out with a detailed blueprint for attracting Indian scientists and engineers back. The same year, the government increased salaries for faculty at leading institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology, where a fresh lecturer today earns over Rs. 70,000 a month.
With India maintaining relatively strong economic growth even during the continuing slowdown globally, companies are investing in research and development, offering corporate sector opportunities that weren't available 10 years back.
"We've been slowly creating a better research environment, and have improved pay significantly, to try and get back our science and engineering students," a senior official at the department of science and technology said. "But I'm not sure what we could have offered to counter the carrot of Green Cards."
Recognizing the dwindling allure of the US for foreign science and engineering graduates, the presidents and chancellors of 165 American universities
to Obama in September asking him to change visa regulations to award Green Cards to these skilled professionals.
"Top engineers from India and China face wait times of up to 9 years to get a permanent visa, and new applicants from these countries may face considerably longer waits," they wrote to Obama. "The US cannot afford to wait to fix our immigration system."
The university heads include the chiefs of Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), CalTech and the University of California system - the world's largest public university.
"Even as we send away highly skilled workers trained at American universities, competing economies are welcoming these scientists and engineers with streamlined visa applications and creating dedicated visas to ensure that the foreign students who graduate from their own universities can stay and contribute to the local economy," they wrote to Obama, seeking a bipartisan legal solution.
Obama has also supported reforming the work visa - H1B - regime, including raising the cap on skilled workers allowed, but has not explicitly supported the Republican demand for Green Cards.
Speaking to his supporters at his home base in Chicago after winning Tuesday's election, Obama said: "In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward."
As Obama starts another four years at the White House, thousands of Indian students and officials in India's education and science bureaucracies will watch Obama to see whether he adopts Romney's proposal on skilled workers.
But good news for Indian students may be bad for India.