Immigration Policy Complicates Hiring for NJ’s Universities, High-Tech Firms


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At the June 26, 2012, Einstein’s Alley “Innovation Bridge” conference in Princeton, a panel moderated by Peter Kann, former Dow Jones CEO and Wall Street Journal publisher, was adamant that the immigration system—and how it works for both universities and high-tech companies—must be fixed.

On the panel were Seifi Ghasemi, chairman and CEO of Rockwood Holdings (Princeton), a specialty chemical company; A.J. Stewart Smith, dean for research at Princeton University; and Darren Hammell, cofounder and executive VP of business development at Princeton Power Systems.

Darrell West, vice president and governance studies director at the Brookings Institution (Washington, D.C.), joined the panel toward the end of the event, which was also sponsored by Partnership for a New American Economy.

Rockwood’s Ghasemi said immigration policy is hurting his company. “Our goal is to be the best, but to be the best you need good people. We need highly talented people who can develop the innovative products consumers need on a global basis. If we are going to make our company a strong American company, we need to bring those people here and also create an atmosphere in this country so they want to stay here. We are talking about highly intelligent, highly ambitious and very capable people who have many, many options.”

The immigration divide, which includes some people talking about “real Americans,” is “turning off the educated, ambitious people who want to be here. They don’t like the atmosphere” and won’t stay, Ghasemi said. He contrasted America today with that of 1966, when he emigrated from Iran: “It took me almost no time to feel welcome and integrated into the community.”

Princeton Power Systems’ Hammell said he ran into the immigration issue as soon as he started his company 10 years ago. He was able to identify the people he needed to work at the firm, but often they weren’t from the U.S. “So we quickly had to start learning about immigration. We were a startup, and nothing we did was easy; everything was hard.” Running up against the immigration bureaucracy proved to be one more obstacle.

“Finding out there were legal issues surrounding bringing people on board because they were not U.S. citizens was surprising and added many tasks to my day. Even now, it seems the way the rules have been set up, they assume companies will do the wrong thing and penalize them,” added Hammell.

Smith spoke about the plight of universities: “Today at Princeton, two thirds of our postdocs are here on temporary visas and half our assistant professors are, too,” he said. “This is typical of most research institutions. What we are now seeing is increased competition for this talent from other countries, which we didn’t see before. … Other countries are developing research institutions of stature, and the best researchers may not be coming to the U.S.” because of our immigration policy.

The worst problems associated with obtaining legal and permanent residency are the backlog and uncertainty, Smith noted. This is a big deterrent against talent committing to a university, he said, and not just young talent. “I saw a distinguished professor who wanted to come to the U.S., but couldn’t come for a long time, decide not to bother. It’s a very time-consuming, expensive process.”

Immigration policy is also affecting our nation’s ability to hold big research conferences here, noted Smith. Big international conferences do not choose their speakers until very close to conference deadlines because they want to get the speakers who have made the most exciting contributions to science, he said. Sometimes those speakers are young and not yet recognized, and they come from so-called “sensitive” countries. They are either denied entry or have to wait until after the opportunity has passed. “The U.S. is on the blacklist at many of these important conferences,” he said.

Ghasemi pointed out that as a global company, Rockwood has some options. If researchers and scientists can’t come to the U.S., the firm can open a research center in, say, Germany or Taiwan. However, that doesn’t make employees loyal to the American company. “What happens is we train them and they work for us for a while, then they work for our Taiwanese competitor. That is not a good solution if you are trying to create a strong American company. What we need to do is bring these people here, have them work for us here and have them identify as Americans and help us grow, rather than helping our competitors.”

All the panelists thought the many proposals involving stapling a green card to the diploma of any graduate of a higher-level program were a good idea. As Smith said, “We spend all this money educating them and then we say, ‘You can’t stay.’ It’s nuts.”

Added Hammell, “There should be a high priority for highly skilled people to stay. … We get a lot of students from Princeton and other local universities who want to stay. They would be good for the company, but we know it’s a hurdle for a small firm to keep them here.” He added that not all highly skilled activities are covered by particular graduate programs, so immigration would still remain a problem to solve.

Hammell focused on some problems young companies have with immigration-related paperwork alone. “It seems as though the system was designed for larger companies,” he noted. For example, his firm moved its manufacturing facilities six times in 10 years because it was growing, and each time it had to refile paperwork for green cards. “For our employees this became a big deal. They’d ask, ‘Is this [move] going to mess up my green card application? Am I going to have to go back to my country for six months?’ ”

At the end of the discussion, Kann asked if the situation for highly qualified immigrants in high tech can be solved without solving the overall immigration issue. West replied that there are some piecemeal bipartisan initiatives out there, but “the other issues complicate the debate.” ##

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