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U.S. loses skilled immigrants: slow economy here, better jobs, family at home

March 4, 2009 |  5:58 am

Miao Duo in Chengdu For many, the emotional political immigration debate has long centered around keeping the illegal ones out and deporting the ones who're already here.

But new research has raised another potentially political question with rippling impacts on the American economy. How can we keep legal skilled immigrants from leaving? Packing up their much-needed talents and ambitions and going back home?

An increasing number of highly-skilled immigrants from China and India are departing the U.S. to return to their native countries, according to a two-year study by the Kauffman Foundation.

Despite immigrants making up only 12% of the population, they are the top technologists or chief executives of more than half of Silicon Valley start-ups. Immigrants have flourished and even co-founded such multi-billion dollar companies as Google and Intel.

The latter company was named in an op-ed article by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman in Tuesday's Washington Post as a shining example of a start-up that began in a period of economic downturn (kind of like the one we have now). But now more of our most valuable ...

... human imports are hopping on flights to distant lands, which could prove to be an obstacle for Hoffman's proposal to "Let our start-ups bail us out."

For years, politicians and the media have been relentless in its onslaughts, rallying for reform of the questionable immigration "crisis," and Congress has recently begun investigations into the misuse of immigration law by local police to the ends of racial profiling. So, some ask, is it any wonder many of the brightest immigrants are exiting in droves?

Critics would argue that the new generation of immigrants, unlike waves of families in the 19th and early 20th centuries that came lock-stock-and-barrel, never intended to stay, that they left their families back home while they lived and worked here temporarily to make better money in the U.S. and export it back home.

Surprisingly, respondents in the Kauffman study said anti-immigrant policies aren't to blame for the departures. Many of those decamping say they're simply finding a better quality of life, better jobs and the added benefit of being close to their families back in their home countries.

The U.S.can't really do much about the latter without some disputed immigration reforms, but a stronger economy could certainly help the first two.

-- Mark Milian

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Photo credit: Don Lee / Los Angeles Times