A Review: The Immigrant Exodus

By Vivek Wadhwa; Wharton Digital Press; pp. 106, Reviewed by Elizabeth Villarreal

Andrew Carnegie. Alexander Graham Bell. Sergey Brin of Google. The United States has always drawn strength from the innovative entrepreneurs who cross our borders. But in his new book, author Vivek Wadhwa questions the ability of the United States to remain a magnet for foreign talent with an increasingly unreasonable and cumbersome immigration process.

Consider the case of Anand Chhatpar, writes Wadhwa. Chhatpar came to the United States in 2001 to study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. By the time he graduated, he had eight utility patents, a successful business with several notable clients, and a 3.978 GPA. After graduation he and his wife started another business that paid more than $250,000 in taxes in its first two years. Despite this, they were denied the EB-1 visa they needed to stay in the country. Since their return to India, neither of their companies has been able to make a profit.

Wadhwa argues that the Chhatpars’ case is not unique. The skilled immigrants who have infused the nation with talent and energy are being forced out—or are simply refusing to come at all. Wadhwa, a longtime advocate for skilled immigrants in the United States, was himself once an Indian immigrant entrepreneur, nurturing a tech start-up into a publicly traded company valued at $118 million before turning to scholarly work at Duke, Stanford, and Emory Universities. He maintains that the conditions that let his business flourish may not be there for the next generation of immigrants.

The trends Wadhwa identifies from the data in an accompanying study by the tech-friendly Kauffman Foundation are troubling. In Silicon Valley, a global hub of innovation, the number of tech startups with one or more immigrant founders has fallen since 2005 from 52.4 to 43.9 percent, instead of increasing in response to the immigration boom of the 1990s. Wadhwa blames our faulty immigration system for these trends, which lets immigrants like Chhatpar in but then refuses to let them stay. Even those who eventually receive green cards often must wait for a decade or longer in uncertainty. The people in this “immigration limbo” can’t switch jobs, accept promotions, or—most importantly—start their own businesses.

The Immigrant Exodus offers several concise and commonsense solutions to America’s slow decline as a magnet for foreign talent. Almost all of them could be implemented immediately with suffcient political will: increase the number of green cards available to skilled immigrants, allow more immigrant spouses of visa holders to work, institute a startup visa, and remove the “country caps” on green cards, which limit any single nation’s contribution to a year’s immigration to seven percent of the annual total. Other countries such as Australia, Canada, China, Germany, and the United Kingdom are making similar changes and winning immigrants who might have become Americans. Wadhwa himself spent his school years in Australia, and says he “would have been a fool” to come to the United States if its immigration policy was as it is now.

Though The Immigrant Exodus features stories of exceptionally well-qualified immigrants like Anand Chhatpar, we can’t tell whether his story is at all typical. Even if Wadhwa’s proposed solutions were to pass immediately, they would not have been enough to retain Chuansheng Ge, an immigrant not featured in Wadhwa’s book. Ge did not find the immigration process diffcult, but he still chose to move his biopharmaceutical company to China for his social and professional connections. He suggested that discrimination against immigrants by employers, although not a major factor in his decision, may be a factor in others’. Ge’s story hints at the multitude of factors that can push an immigrant towards choosing one country over another. Immigration policy is just one star in the firmament, and just letting in skilled workers doesn’t guarantee the US can keep them around.

At times, Wadhwa’s book can seem limited in scope. Wadhwa attributes the decline in immigration almost completely to a failure in immigration law, and ignores other cultural explanations like racism or xenophobia. But why would he look to these causes? The America to which he was first introduced has always been a friendly meritocracy. “I knew great things were possible in America,” he writes in the introduction—and he never considers an alternative viewpoint.

Elizabeth Villarreal ’16 is in Saybrook College. Contact her at elizabeth.villarreal@ yale.edu.