Return of the Native

Why are some immigrants living in America returning home? It's not as simple as the poor U.S. visa policy.

By Sanjay Saigal

Fellow guest-blogger Sriram Gollapalli writes that the "process to enter the U.S. as a skilled worker can be extremely frustrating, confusing, and inconsistent." That is true. Most immigrants can tell of a relative, a friend, or a colleague who, home for the holidays, awakes one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself, or so the local US consulate's change in behavior would signal, transformed in his bed into a giant insect. Sriram links to an NBC news segment with the sub-head "America's visa restrictions lead to reverse brain drain." The sub-head is true too, though perhaps only in the sense that the headline "Marriages Lead to Messy Divorces" is true.

The always interesting Vivek Wadhwa - he is also interviewed by Tom Brokaw - is a leading researcher on immigrant entrepreneurship in the US. In a companion piece on TechCrunch, Wadhwa doubles down:

These workers [on temporary visas] can't start companies, justify buying houses, or grow deep roots in their communities. Once they get in line for a visa, they can't even accept a promotion or change jobs. They could be required to leave the U.S. immediately--without notice--if their employer lays them off.  Rather than live in constant fear and stagnate in their careers, many are returning home.

Immigrants are returning home. That is true. But is US immigration policy the primary cause?

As I type this, it is precisely 12 minutes since the iPad 2 sales began on the West Coast. CNET is reporting that people in Austin, TX have been queuing in front a store that just seems like it might be an Apple store. In its ability to induce undying loyalty in customers, the US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Service is never confused with Apple Corp. It is a bureaucracy with problems endemic to bureaucracies. Still, in the 99 Ranch stores and dosa joints that stud Silicon Valley like hives in an apiary, the buzz does not immediately turn to


deportations. Regulations for work visas have not been a cake-walk over the past 25 years, if not longer. At best, Wadhwa's alarm seems overstated. My read is that, actual visa complications notwithstanding, the Republic is not in imminent danger from dangerously low levels of immigrant entrepreneurs.

The NBC Nightly News segment featuring Wadhwa and other winsome immigrant over-achievers makes very watchable television. However, I cannot help but think that its Chicken Little tone owes less to the gravity of the issue than to the incantatory power of "government inefficiency and waste". Nothing signals "I'm on your side" like disparaging the government.

Wadhwa's article jars especially because he has convincingly documented, e.g., here, that immigrants are not being driven home by visa issues or other negative motivations. Instead, his research points to reverse migration as a positive decision. Returnees are being pulled by exciting business environments in their home countries that are getting better all the time, and to the comforts of settling back in a familiar cultural milieu:

Eighty-seven percent of Chinese and 79% of Indians said a strong factor in their original decision to return home was the growing demand for their skills in their home countries...

Friends and family played an equally strong role for 88% of Indians and 77% of Chinese. Care for aging parents was considered by 89% of Indians and 79% of Chinese to be much better in their home countries. Nearly 80% of Indians and 67% of Chinese said family values were better in their home countries.

In India Arriving, Rafiq Dossani of Stanford University traces the story of Indian immigration into the US to help understand what is going on. According to Dossani, Indian immigrants to the US came in waves comprising mainly laborers (1899-1920), physicians (mid-1960s), engineers (early1970s), family and overstaying tourists (into the 1980s) and body-shopped engineers (late 1980s and later). The fifth wave, he avers, is turning the tide. These newest of arrivals, professionally successful but with less personal investment in America, are looking homeward. And more so than previous immigrants who are well-settled in the US, they are doing something about it. If I interpret his thesis correctly, returnees will soon overshadow immigrants, both in numbers and in social impact.

Dossani mentions another factor influencing returnees: a recent realization by traditional emigrant societies that welcoming bumiputra with open arms, especially educated high achievers, injects financial and intellectual energy in a contest they believe they can win. This accords with what I see when I'm in Delhi; not just the government, but other institutions too, appreciate the potential in the diaspora. Unlike pre-liberalization times, when NRI (Non-Resident Indian) was practically a slur, the more inclusively-christened PIO (person of Indian origin) is widely feted.

No doubt the wane of the "brain gain", the influx of motivated and educated immigrants that societies such as the US have long enjoyed, will carry as yet ill-understood consequences. However, there is a significant associated benefit (for the US) that I don't often see discussed: the proliferation of American mores - especially in the business and educational sectors - reshaping previously distinct traditions into an American image. I see the process of Americanization accelerating even as (as some allege) America loses its pre-eminence. In another post I will say more on this trend in the context of education.

Sanjay Saigal is founder and CEO of Mudrika Education, Inc., with offices in Silicon Valley, CA and Delhi, India.