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Originally published November 29, 2013 at 2:28 PM | Page modified November 29, 2013 at 4:18 PM

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Guest: Pass immigration reform to fuel innovation

The attitude toward newcomers has since soured, as evidenced by resistance to the passage of a comprehensive immigration bill, writes guest columnist Jan Vilcek.


Special to The Times

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FORTY-eight years ago, my wife and I arrived in this country as many immigrants do: with few possessions and no jobs. Thanks to the welcoming attitude toward immigrants at that time, our circumstances improved dramatically.

I had been trained as a physician and biomedical scientist in Czechoslovakia. I was offered a junior faculty position at the New York University School of Medicine soon after arriving. My wife, Marica, was an art historian. She accepted an entry-level position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In time, we both worked our way up.

We are tremendously grateful to this country for accepting us with open arms and providing us with opportunities to succeed. However, that attitude toward newcomers has since soured, as evidenced by resistance to the passage of a comprehensive immigration bill.

Despite passing the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support, the bill has stagnated in the House. What is at stake is more than our nation’s tradition of hospitality. Without provisions to attract and retain highly skilled immigrants, we are sure to lose our leadership position in the sciences and technology, with dire implications for the American economy.

The foreign-born population of Seattle is 17 percent — only slightly higher than the national average of approximately 13 percent — but the contribution of foreign-born professionals is disproportionately greater. For example, 30 percent of cancer researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are foreign-born.

Among the most prestigious awards and fellowships in the sciences nationwide, a disproportionate percentage of the recipients are immigrants. Thirty-four of the 101 U.S.-based scientists awarded Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine were foreign-born.

A high percentage of doctoral students at American universities are born abroad. In fact, in electrical engineering, civil engineering, computer science and physics, foreign-born doctoral candidates outnumber native-born Americans.

The benefits foreign-born students bring to American innovation are well-documented. A brief from the National Foundation for American Policy showed that more than 60 patent applications are filed per 100 foreign-born Ph.D. students. Yet, with current immigration laws, many of these scholars — who should be assets to the American economy — are instead forced to return to their home countries.

We don’t just turn away their academic work; we turn away the chance for them to give back. A line of immunology research started in my laboratory at NYU was instrumental in the development of the widely used drug Infliximab, a treatment for Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. In gratitude, I donated most of the royalties due to me for the development of Infliximab to support programs at NYU School of Medicine.

Immigrants are indispensable to American entrepreneurship, especially in the technology sector. They are more than twice as likely to start businesses than native-born Americans. A nationwide study by the National Venture Capital Association found that 33 percent of venture-backed companies that went public between 2006 and 2012 had at least one immigrant founder and, together, these companies represented a market capitalization of $900 billion.

Washington state showed a significant increase in the percentage of immigrant-founded companies, from 12 percent in 2005 to 29 percent in 2012. Washington state also relies solidly on the skills of foreign-born workers: from 2000 to 2009, Microsoft had 21,214 H-1B employees, ranking No. 1 in the nation in the number of H-1B visa-holders employed. During that same time period, the University of Washington had 1,871 H-1B employees and Washington State University had 1,016 — also very significant numbers.

We need to have the foresight to enact immigration reforms that will strengthen our economy. While some members of Congress remain focused on blocking undocumented immigrants from gaining a path to citizenship, the newly filed House bill has bipartisan elements of reform worthy of action by the full House.

The Senate has proposed a needed expansion of temporary visas — Y visas that would replace H-2A and H-2B programs — and a merit-based preference system. The House should follow this lead and ease restrictions on visas for American-trained graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills.

These are important directions. It is critical to enable the best and brightest to contribute to our scientific and business communities. A bold plan of immigration reform is needed to attract talent from around the world to this country to generate scientific breakthroughs, start businesses and create jobs. Congress ought to act without delay on the pending legislation.

Dr. Jan Vilcek and his wife Marica started the Vilcek Foundation in New York to raise awareness of immigrant contributions to arts and sciences. He is a 2013 recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.



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