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Ideas | Kovie Biakolo

Brain drain, brain waste — immigration policy gone wrong

Joey Guidone for The Boston Globe

It might seem easy for human-resources departments to move Wole Aluko-Olokun’s resume to the top of the pile. The Nigerian graduated from Drake University in Iowa in 2011 with a triple major in economics, finance, and accounting. He also has a master’s in economics from the University of Houston and currently works at KPMG under an H-1B visa.

Yet only a limited number of employers are willing to take on a worker that requires a visa, with its additional costs and paperwork. “There was much lower supply than demand when it came to my qualifications, but much less demand than supply when it came to employers looking to sponsor a visa for an international student,” he says.

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Aluko-Olokun had already received a callback from Exxon Mobil and put on a suit and tie when the company’s HR rep called. Because he required visa sponsorship, he couldn’t even be interviewed. “I begged to go in and prove myself,” he said, “but I was told that’s simply company policy to not sponsor visas. I sat down and cried.”

There’s an ambivalence built into America’s Byzantine immigration system, and not just about how to handle low-skilled laborers from Latin America. While the foreign graduate students and educated professionals from all around the world flock to US universities and the industries they spin off, these immigrants are welcome only up to a point.

When time-limited visas expire, professionals often find themselves in limbo — unable to obtain permanent jobs in the United States but overqualified for what limited opportunities await in their countries of origin. The conundrum is particularly acute for foreign-born Africans, whose home nations might be in turmoil.

While they work out their options, neither the United States nor their countries of origin get the full benefit of their skills. What results isn’t just a loss of brainpower from the developing world. It’s also a brain waste, as carefully cultivated human knowledge goes underused.

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The controversy over brain drain in Africa is well documented. The number of African migrants doubled between 1980 and 2010, reaching over 30 million people in 2014, according to the World Bank. Those who reach the United States are disproportionately educated. Over 41 percent of foreign-born Africans in the United States have bachelor’s degrees or higher, as compared to 28 percent of the total foreign-born population.

While the remittances such immigrants send back are welcome, the exodus of educated people is keenly felt at home. A UN report recently found that one in nine Africans with a college degree lived in North America and Europe. These migrant professionals create shortages in their home countries, especially in the fields of medicine and education. By contributing to the advancement of the countries that they live and work in, they may exacerbate the distance between advanced and developing economies.

Yet these immigrants’ place in the United States is far from secure. For foreign-born African university students, the road to obtaining a work visa and eventual permanent residency is not an easy one. In order to work after college, foreign-born immigrants often have to receive sponsorship from a company that applies for an H1-B visa on their behalf. (They may work for a year or up to 18 months or longer after college, depending on their academic area of interest.) The H1-B visa allows US companies to hire foreign workers for specialty occupations. These visas last three years and may be applied for twice, during which time a company may then apply for permanent residency for a worker.

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Yet no matter how many qualified applicants, the number of visas is limited. Last year, there were 233,000 applications for 85,000 H1-B visas, of which 20,000 are reserved for applicants who have obtained master’s degrees. (PhD holders may self-petition to work as they are considered in the “extraordinary abilities” category of potential immigrants.)

Aside from the H1-B lottery, obtaining a green card via marriage or enduring the wait time for immediate family members (sometimes up to 10 to 15 years), there are two options: Leave the country or go back to school.

Of course, even those who do obtain H1-Bs face restrictions. The work they can do is limited, as are the companies they can work for. Changing jobs must occur within a restricted time period, and involves refiling with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Many immigrants will often stay in a job that underutilizes their skills and education just to remain in the country. Indeed, despite African immigrants’ impressive educational achievement, underemployment is still a major problem. According to analysis done by the Migration Policy Institute of the American Community Survey in 2009, “over a third of recent immigrants (those with fewer than 10 years of US residency) who had a college degree or higher earned abroad were working in unskilled jobs.”

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The ambivalence of the American immigration system has global implications. And while African immigrants may look like success stories by some measure, they’d benefit from a more straightforward immigration system — especially one that favors highly skilled immigrants educated at American universities and institutions.

African immigrants, meanwhile, are left wondering if the country is truly inviting of them and their skills. As Aluko-Olokun put it: “America was an immigrant country, [but] when you have international Harvard law students having to go back to their home country because of a lottery, because they didn’t get a spot, it’s definitely not an immigrant country.”


Kovie Biakolo is a culture writer and editor, and a multiculturalism scholar.