Let Them Stay
Dr. Muhil Ravichandran has a PharmD from Rutgers University and works in cancer research. She has lived legally in America for almost her entire life and is a model immigrant. Yet because of America’s broken immigration system, she’s going to be forced to leave her home and take her much‐needed talents elsewhere.
Ravichandran legally moved to the USA with her family when she was two years old, but when she became an adult she was no longer covered by her family’s legal status. While in college she qualified for a student visa, but upon graduation she was forced to fall back on the vagaries of the green card system.
There are categories of green cards for those with advanced degrees that she could have applied under, yet the wait period for those with Indian citizenship is measured in multiple years, decades, or even—as David Bier once calculated—more than a century. Ravichandran didn’t have 151 years (!) to wait post‐degree.
So she got an oncology job and her employer put her name in the H‑1B visa lottery, a highly competitive sponsored category. But last year there were ~484,000 applications for only 85,000 H‑1B slots, meaning that Ravichandran’s chance of success was roughly 18%. Unfortunately, she was one of the 82% who were rejected.
That means she will likely lose her job, have to move out of the U.S. and away from her immediate family, go to a country where she wasn’t raised, and apply again in the future. If she applies under another category, like EB‑3, she might make it back in 17 years give or take. But at that point, the odds will have increased that she’ll already have put down roots in another, more serious country that isn’t so determined to shoot itself in the foot. She’ll stop applying and the U.S. will be worse off as a result.
The sheer unnecessity of it all drives me crazy. Ravichandran is going to go through substantial personal trauma for what? In what conceivable universe is not allowing her to reside in the U.S. in our national best interest??
Imagine if we found out that a terrorist state, say North Korea, was kidnapping cancer scientists—it’s a less fantastical scenario than you might think—from America to burnish its medical science capabilities. We’d be outraged! It would be a clear blow to our national self‐interest to allow another nation to pilfer our top researchers. We’d might go to war over such an act, charge those who aid and abet the kidnappings with treason, and so on.
Yet America’s policymakers are doing that *themselves*! We’re forcing top scientists, medical researchers, and entrepreneurs to leave by the hundreds of thousands every year. It’s insanity! We should be begging Ravichandran to stay, not making her pray not to have to leave.
And it’s not just a zero sum transfer. American research clusters are among the best in the world. Our researchers have better access to capital than elsewhere. We’re the global leader in biomedical research because we still, for now at least, attract top global talent and investment. The simple truth is that Ravichandran is less likely to be as productive working in an Indian lab as in an American one. That’s a deadweight loss for humanity.
We already dodged one such bullet with vaccine research. Katalin Kariko, the mother of mRNA vaccine technology, was nearly forced out of the U.S. twice: once because of hangups with a spousal visa for her husband, and a second time because of how easy it was for an angry boss to use employment visa restrictions to punish her for leaving his lab. Just think of the deadweight loss that humanity would have suffered if Katalin hadn’t developed mRNA technology to the point of commercial application, hadn’t had access to the American venture capital needed to start up BioNTech, and thus hadn’t played a vital role in the development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. In an only slightly alternate universe, Katalin Kariko is forced back to Hungary by dumb U.S. immigration policies, a change that leads to thousands or even millions more lives lost in the pandemic. Usually “deadweight loss” isn’t quite so literal…
And with Ravichandran, we’re talking about cancer research. Right now we are making incredible strides with cancer vaccines and treatments coming down the pipeline—melanoma! lung! breast! glioblastoma! prostate! colorectal!—but the biggest bottleneck (other than the FDA) is the lack of researchers. Excluding people like Ravichandran forces American companies to conduct fewer cancer studies at higher expense and on a longer timescale than otherwise would be the case. Which means that people will unnecessarily die from cancer because we were months, years, or decades slower to do the research that could have saved them.
What should we do? The most obvious reform is to systematically raise the H‑1B visa cap, as Cato has long advocated. That’s what other countries are currently doing to take advantage of American immigration idiocy in order to poach talent. Canada created a new, more flexible variation on the employment visa while also generally liberalizing its immigration laws, and it’s already been a boon to Toronto’s burgeoning “Maple Valley.” Our national failure is their great gain.
This content was crossposted from the author’s Substack.