My Life as a 'Highly Skilled' Immigrant

One August morning many years ago, I found myself starry eyed and jet lagged at the Los Angeles International airport. In search of the American Dream, I had come halfway around the planet to pursue graduate studies in computer science at the University of Southern California.

My earliest memories of the United States are of newfound friends asking me about the movie Slumdog Millionaire and arousing laughter when I referred to an eraser as a 'rubber.' In about a year, America was no longer a foreign place but the country I call home, the nation I want to contribute to.

Little did I then know that the green pastures are not so green, at least not without a green card. I would soon be on a work visa (H1), joining hands with over a million engineers, scientists and doctors living as second class citizens, thanks to our broken immigration system.

I soon graduated with flying colors and applied for jobs across the country. After a rigorous interview process, I was offered a spot at a search engine company with an acceptance rate of less than 0.5%. Excited about working with the best engineers I accepted the offer, and over the years have built a career as a software developer.

On the surface, I've created a good life and lived the American dream. But in reality, thanks to the immigration limbo and the endless wait for green cards, I live a different kind of life -- the life of an indentured servant. I cannot change employers or quit my job (to start a startup or go back to school). And if I ever get fired, guess what? Leaving family, friends and everything else behind, I would be tossed out of the country, like an empty beer bottle tossed into the trash can, that very day. Spouses of skilled immigrants face an even tougher life -- despite being well qualified, they cannot work or even have a credit card in their names. Denied every opportunity to be productive citizens and virtually confined within the four walls of their house, they lose their self esteem and end up in a state of depression.

Like any other patriotic American, I take great pride in serving my country. A few months after graduating from grad school, I had a chat with a local Army recruiter about volunteering in the Reserves. The recruiter was very excited about my skills -- foreign languages and engineering prowess. When asked about my green card, I said I was on a work-visa and was waiting "in line" for a green card.

I vividly remember the instantaneous change on his face, from excitement to disappointment, as if our conversation took place yesterday. It turned out that as an ALIEN (Yes, that is exactly what I am called as though I am from Mars) I cannot serve my country. Even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn't think of me as one of its own.

In the age of globalization, we need to attract and retain the best and brightest to remain competitive. A Duke university study found that foreign born inventors have been credited to about 75 percent of patent applications filed by the top research universities, and another study by Kauffman foundation found that about 25 percent of engineering and technology firms have a foreign born founder. In the US, almost half of STEM graduate students are foreign born, but dejected at their lives as second class citizens during the decades long wait for green card and the plethora of problems the H1b's face in their day to day life (from renewing a drivers license to buying a house), many of these American trained engineers and scientists return to their native countries and end up competing against the American economy -- a phenomena named as 'reverse brain drain' by Duke University researcher, Vivek Wadhwa.

The effects of the reverse brain drain are significant. A 2009 study by Technology Policy Institute found that in the absence of reverse brain drain and other barriers against retaining brainpower, the annual GDP will be raised by 13 billion.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree on the need for immigration reform, and its imperativeness to our economic health. Yet, immigration reform has been stalled in the House of Representatives. Why does Speaker Boehner think that maintaining status quo -- millions contributing to an underground economy, while we train the best and brightest to work for our competitors -- is good policy? It is time for our politicians to put aside petty politics and come together to act on immigration reform. Til then, I will serve my country by advocating for immigration reform.