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US needs best and brightest migrants

world Updated: Jul 03, 2010 00:20 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya

In his first major policy speech on immigration, US President Barack Obama focussed attention upon an Indian-American entrepreneur as an example of how immigrants enriched the culture of entrepreneurship and ingenuity in the United States. The US, he said, needs to make it easier for the “best and the brightest” to settle and work on its soil.

Speaking at the American University in Washington, Obama said, “Just a few weeks ago, we had an event of small business owners at the White House. And one business owner was a woman named Prachee Devadas who came to this country, became a citizen, and opened up a successful technology services company. When she started, she had just one employee. Today, she employs more than a hundred people. “

Prachee Devadas, who has a bachelor’s in economics from Pune University, is the president and chief executive officer of the Maryland-based Synergy Enterprises Inc or SEI. On June 11, she and her husband Anand, SEI’s vice-president of corporate operations, met Obama in the Oval Office as part of a focus group on challenges facing small businesses.

While the focus of the US president’s speech was on illegal immigrants, he also dwelled on legal immigrants, especially those with higher education, who had contributed to American growth. Obama said, “We should make it easier for the best and the brightest to come to start businesses and develop products and create jobs.” He spoke of the need to make it easier for students to become citizens. “While we provide students from around the world visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities, our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or power a new industry right here in the United States.” Indians constitute the largest foreign student population in the US.

But while Obama may laud highly-skilled immigrants, a populist backlash against H1B workers led by US Congressmen and the continuing troubled state of the US economy, have led to a sharp drop in applications for that work visa.

While the H1B has a cap of 65,000 internationally in the general category and 20,000 in the Master’s exemption category, with half the year over, only 23,500 and 10,000 petitions have been received by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services till June 25 this year.

H1Bs is main pipeline by which technology workers get green cards, many of whom in turn become entrepreneurs.

According to research by Vivek Wadhwa, a former tech entrepreneur himself, and AnnaLee Saxenian, a Professor at the University of California — Berkeley, in 2005 start-ups founded by immigrants produced $52 billion in sales and employed nearly 450,000 workers. Of these, 26 per cent of the key founders of engineering and technology startups were born in India. That translates to Indian immigrants creating more than 100,000 jobs within one decade.

Obama’s speech came in the wake of tougher anti-illegal immigrant laws in states like Arizona. While Indians comprise just two per cent of illegals in the country, at around 200,000, their numbers have increased by nearly two-third within the last decade, according to a recent Department of Homeland Security report.

There are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the US.