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Keeping America Competitive

Why the U.S. needs to attract and keep the world's first-round intellectual draft choices

By Thomas L. Friedman

OPINION features excerpts of pieces by columnists from the Op-Ed page and other sections of The New York Times. All columns from the last seven days are available at nytimes.com; Op-Ed pieces (by columnists and outside contributors), plus Editorials and Letters to the Editor, are at nytimes.com/opinion. Please let us know what you think of OPINION at upfront@scholastic.com.

First I had to laugh. Then I had to cry. I recently took part in commencement at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.—one of America's great science and engineering schools. One by one, the announcer read the names of the Ph.D. students as each was handed his or her doctorate—in biotechnology, computing, physics, and engineering—by the school's president, Shirley Ann Jackson.

The reason I had to laugh was because it seemed like every one of the newly minted Ph.D.'s was foreign-born. As the foreign names kept coming—"Hong Lu, Xu Xie, Tao Yuan, Fu Tang"—I thought that the entire class of doctoral students in physics were going to be Chinese, until "Paul Shane Morrow" saved the day.

It was such a caricature of what Jackson herself calls "the quiet crisis" in high-end science education in the U.S. that you could only laugh.

My complaint— and why I also wanted to cry—was that there wasn't someone from Citizenship and Immigration Services standing there stapling green cards to the diplomas of each of these foreign-born Ph.D.'s. I want them all to stay, become Americans, and do their research and innovation here.

If we can't educate enough of our own kids to compete at this level, we'd better make sure we can import someone else's—otherwise we will not maintain our standard of living.

It is pure idiocy that Congress will not open our borders—as wide as possible—to attract and keep the world's first-round intellectual draft choices.

I think any foreign student who gets a Ph.D. in our country—in any subject—should be offered citizenship. The idea that we actually make it difficult for them to stay is crazy.

Technology companies are pleading with Congress to boost both the number of visas available to companies that want to bring in skilled foreign workers and the number of employment-based green cards given to high-tech foreign workers who want to stay here.

Give them all they want! Our companies need these workers now, and over time they will start many more companies and create many more good jobs than they can possibly displace.

Folks, we can't keep being stupid about these things. You can't have a world where foreign-born students dominate your science graduate schools—and then go back to their home countries to start companies and create jobs—without it eventually affecting our standard of living.