Want to "Make America Great Again"? Hire immigrant scientists and let them stay.

Egle Cekanaviciute Mar 13, 2016

This was originally inspired by the blog post here on 1st generation immigrants who are invaluable for lab research.

None of the current GOP candidates offer specific support for legal immigration, especially for highly skilled workers, and Donald Trump is particularly vocal against H1B visas. (Democrats don’t have a stellar track record either.) You know who else is on these visas? A very large proportion of international postdocs and non-academic scientists who haven’t been as lucky as me to get a green card before graduation. 

My own experience lies with the “0th generation” immigrants in STEM, so that's who I'm writing about here: those who came in, legally, as undergrads, or graduate students, or postdocs, for a chance to participate in top-notch research - in American labs and for the ultimate benefit of the American public. 

If such immigrants want to stay in science after graduation, they need either a J1 or an H1B appointment in academia, and an H1B in industry. And H1Bs have quotas. This means, even after the most prestigious institutions in the world put $200K into your education, and even after you lived here for 4-10 years as a model, tax-paying, law-abiding resident alien (yes, that’s the official title) your dream of being a scientist might be cut off halfway through achieving it. More importantly for the rest of the country, you might not be able to return its investment in you by doing research and teaching the next generations of students. It should not be a partisan issue either: whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, if you care about the US staying competitive in science and technology, spending time and money on training people only to kick them out afterwards is simply a bad business model. 

I came to the US at 19 without knowing a single person in the country, with $500 to my name. All I dreamed about was science. Luckily, Harvard took a chance on me and gave me full financial aid and a fellowship that let me work in a lab. Later Stanford offered a private grant to cover my first years as a PhD student. They gave me a chance - and I will gladly spend the rest of my life paying it back. How many immigrants are still waiting for such a chance? How many immigrant students have actual, literal nightmares of calling a country their home for 10 years and then being forced out of it? And what kind of reasoning is considering me more worthy of a green card status just because I married an American, and not because of my extensive scientific and technical skills and education?

Your typical STEM immigrant is probably someone you'd like to hire. In fact, a large number of tech companies do, and even more would if the immigration process were simplified and made less expensive. After all, being a 0th generation immigrant in STEM means leaving behind your family, country and the entire emotional/social safety net, figuring out the system of getting into science in a completely different culture, all of it in a foreign language and all of it often contingent upon acquiring financial support. It means hard life choices and long hours and fierce competition and knowing that you cannot afford to fail a class or spend time figuring out what you want to do with yourself. It means not being eligible for most funding sources and many jobs, and doggedly trying to make your way in spite of that, basically by becoming so good that you can’t be ignored. If that doesn't breed determination and responsibility, I don't know what does. 

I am an immigrant. So is my lab professor. So was his professor. So is 50% of my lab – all of us working to find treatments for multiple sclerosis. So are countless scientists trying to cure diseases, launch rockets, invent a hundred new flavors of breakfast cereal, explore the wonder of the universe. We are already here, legally, supported by universities and companies that value us enough to pay our salaries. We come in a spectrum of skin tones and accents and creeds and political affiliations. We are working on extending American lifespan and putting Americans on Mars and teaching American students and volunteering to bring science to American neighborhoods. And all we ask for is a chance to work on discoveries and inventions that would make America great again.

Thank you to Twitter users @drugmonkeyblog and @McLNeuro whose excellent blog posts and comments inspired me to write this. Participate in the discussion on #ImmigrantInSTEM.