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STEM Jobs Act would help foreign-born innovators keep their talents in U.S.


The following by SMU engineering student Prasanna Rangarajan first appeared in the November 28, 2012, edition of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

November 30, 2012

By Prasanna Rangarajan
Special to the Star-Telegram

This week, the U.S. House is expected to vote on a bill to create more visas for foreign-born students in science, technology, engineering and math. For me, and many others, it means the chance to fulfill our American dreams. For Americans, it means the chance to reverse a slow but steady brain drain of innovators.

The STEM Jobs Act, HR 6429, would provide students like me an opportunity to create jobs here in the United States, as opposed to other foreign countries.

I come from a family of Indian scientists and engineers who emphasized the importance of a first-rate education in these fields. This emphasis -- coupled with the rapid influx of U.S. engineering firms into my hometown of Bangalore -- shaped my decision to enroll in an undergraduate engineering program.

I quickly realized that the United States was the hub of technological innovation. I wanted to be a part of that, so I decided to pursue a master's degree at Columbia University in 2001 and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University, where I'm scheduled to graduate this spring.

I love it here, but I am worried that my time in this country is limited, owing to the complex and often unfriendly immigration policies that exist here.

As a graduate student, I strive to develop simple solutions to long-standing problems in optical imaging. My work is funded by the U.S. Army Research Lab and was awarded at a technology innovation competition. After graduation, I would like to continue to work with government labs or perhaps start a company that commercializes key aspects of my research.

But sadly, I have to overcome several immigration obstacles before I can begin to entertain either of these possibilities. Many of my peers from India have begun immigrating to Europe and Australia -- places with friendlier immigration policies that offer more incentives than the United States. In some countries, an advanced degree is considered reason enough for permanent residency.

Making it harder for innovators to come to, or remain in, the United States makes little sense when the data suggest that immigrants are a driving force behind economic development in this country. A study conducted by the bipartisan Partnership for a New American Economy shows that last year, 76 percent of patents from the top 10 patent-producing universities in the country had a foreign-born inventor. Those patents represent not only good ideas but also entrepreneurial opportunities -- the basis for new companies that create jobs and contribute to local economies.

Economists have found that immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business as the native-born, and data suggest that immigrants founded 28 percent of all new businesses opened in American in 2011.

I came to the United States in 2001 with the hope of joining a unique culture of innovation that remains unparalleled throughout the world. That dream has not changed. But after 11 years of American education, I may have to take my skills elsewhere. I strongly urge Congress to pass the STEM Jobs Act and increase the number of visas for foreign-born scientists and engineers.

Please let me -- and the many talented foreign-born students like me -- work and innovate here.

Prasanna Rangarajan, a native of India, is a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University.