Intellectual Property, the Immigration Backlog, and a Reverse Brain-Drain

More than one million skilled immigrant workers, including scientists, engineers, doctors and researchers and their families, are competing for 120,000 permanent U.S. resident visas each year, creating a sizeable imbalance likely to fuel a "reverse brain-drain" with skilled workers returning to their home country, according to this report. The situation is even bleaker as the number of employment visas issued to immigrants from any single country is less than 10,000 per year with a wait time of several years.

Conducted by researchers at Duke University, New York University and Harvard University, the study is the third in a series of studies focusing on immigrants' contributions to the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. Earlier research revealed a dramatic increase in the contributions of foreign nationals to U.S. intellectual property over an eight-year period.

In this study, "Intellectual Property, the Immigration Backlog, and a Reverse Brain-Drain," researchers offer a more refined measure of this rise in contributions of foreign nationals to U.S. intellectual property and seek to explain this increase with an analysis of the immigrant-visa backlog for skilled workers. The key finding from this research is that the number of skilled workers waiting for visas is significantly larger than the number that can be admitted to the United States. This imbalance creates the potential for a sizeable reverse brain-drain from the United States to the skilled workers' home countries.

The earlier studies, "America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs" and "Entrepreneurship, Education and Immigration: America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part II," documented that one in four engineering and technology companies founded between 1995 and 2005 had an immigrant founder. Researchers found that these companies employed 450,000 workers and generated $52 billion in revenue in 2006. Indian immigrants founded more companies than the next four groups (from the United Kingdom, China, Taiwan and Japan) combined.

Furthermore, these companies' founders tended to be highly educated in science, technology, math and engineering-related disciplines, with 96 percent holding bachelor's degrees and 75 percent holding master's or PhD degrees.

Among key findings in the most recent report:

  • Foreign nationals residing in the United States were named as inventors or co-inventors in 25.6 percent of international patent applications filed from the United States in 2006. This represents an increase from 7.6 percent in 1998.
  • Foreign nationals contributed to more than half of the international patents filed by a number of large, multi-national companies, including Qualcomm (72 percent), Merck & Co. (65 percent), General Electric (64 percent), Siemens (63 percent) and Cisco (60 percent). Forty-one percent of the patents filed by the U.S. government had foreign nationals as inventors or co-inventors.
  • In 2006, 16.8 percent of international patent applications from the United States had an inventor or co-inventor with a Chinese-heritage name, representing an increase from 11.2 percent in 1998. The contribution of inventors with Indian-heritage names increased to 13.7 percent from 9.5 percent in the same period.
  • The total number of employment-based principals in the employment-based categories and their family members waiting for legal permanent residence in the United States in 2006 was estimated at 1,055,084. Additionally, there are an estimated 126,421 residents abroad also waiting for employment-based U.S. legal permanent residence, adding up to a worldwide total of 1,181,505.

Using data from the New Immigrant Survey, the authors find that, in 2003, approximately one in five new legal immigrants in the United States and about one in three employment-based new legal immigrants either planned to leave the United States or were uncertain about remaining. The authors had no data on how many foreign nationals have actually returned to their homelands.

About the research team 
For more information about the Global Engineering and Entrepreneurship research at Duke University, visit http://www.globalizationresearch.com; visit http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/lwp/ to learn about Harvard Law's Labor and Worklife Program; and visit http://www.nyu.edu/ for more information about New York University.