With anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. increasing in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School Dean Geoffrey Garrett has invoked the story of Kunal Bahl, who came to America full of talent and promise, got his Wharton MBA in 2007, took a job in a blue-chip tech company, then lost the work-visa lottery and went home to India – where he started an e-commerce unicorn called Snapdeal that may rival China’s Alibaba.
“I can only wonder what Kunal would have created had he stayed in America,” Garrett writes in an essay on LinkedIn. The example of Bahl shows the threat to America’s economic dominance from an immigration system that haphazardly rejects thousands of highly skilled workers, Garrett suggests.
The Wharton dean defends “America’s immigration-innovation nexus” as the “secret sauce” of the U.S. economy. “For more than a century the U.S. has been a magnet for talented people from all over the world, people who come to America knowing it is the place where they can realize their greatest ambitions and aspirations,” he writes, going on to mention the world-changing contributions of immigrants Albert Einstein and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, as well as immigrant Wharton alumni Elon Musk and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
MBAS: COLLATERAL DAMAGE IN THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE
The tech industry has lobbied to loosen work visa restrictions, pushing for reform of the lottery-based H-1B visa system that sees far more applicants than the 85,000 available visas: in the most recent round, in fiscal year 2016, 233,000 applications came in. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.US organization wants more H-1B visas for highly skilled employees in tech.
While it appears sensible to allow talented workers – MBAs, for example – to stay in a country that needs their skills and ingenuity, the H-1B picture has been complicated, and politicized, largely due to gaming of the system by IT outsourcing firms, which deluge the lottery with submissions, harvest a major share of visas, and have reportedly in several cases used the H-1B to replace large numbers of U.S. employees with temporary foreign workers. Widely publicized abuses have dragged debate over the visa into immigration politics, where the rhetoric rarely gets down to details such as the country’s loss of Kunal Bahl and other MBA talent.
‘REALLY WORRIED ABOUT THE ANTI-IMMIGRANT SENTIMENT’
Garrett, in his essay, laments the loss of the “great value” for employers and society that comes from denying visas to highly skilled workers. And he suggests that the Paris attacks might make immigration reform harder to accomplish. “It should, then, be no surprise that I’m really worried by the anti-immigrant sentiment in contemporary American politics,” Garrett writes.
“Though I believe many of the stated worries about the impact of immigration on border security and lower-skilled jobs are overstated, I can understand why ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ is a heavy lift–even more so after the horrific and tragic events in Paris last week,” he writes. “But high skilled migration should be much easier.”
Garrett also worries about his own students, a third of whom are foreign. “A lot of them would love to stay in, and contribute to, their adopted home,” Garrett writes. “But they are realists and know that their opportunity to stay, no matter how well they do and no matter how attractive they are to employers, will depend on a lottery.”
The Wharton dean stops short of proposing solutions to the visa-lottery problem, passing the buck to the country’s next leader. “It would be a terrible thing if America’s immigration-innovation secret sauce dried up,” he writes. “I sincerely hope the next American president will have the vision and skill to ensure that doesn’t happen. If not, the U.S. may well become what its detractors claim: yesterday’s global power.”