H1-B visa families produce student standouts

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The primary visa that allows higher-skilled immigrants to work in America is known as the H1-B, and it has been the crucible for a fierce debate.

Immigration overhaul advocates say the H1-B program is a way to get highly talented foreign scientists and engineers to contribute to the economy, and provides a step on the pathway for many to become citizens.

Critics of the program say our universities already graduate enough American students to fill current needs in science, engineering and technology, and that companies that hire H1-B workers hold down wages for qualified American employees.

Stuart Anderson, head of the National Foundation for American Policy, firmly supports the H1-B program, and he says there is another reason to encourage more H1-B hiring: their children.

In a 2011 study, Mr. Anderson analyzed the high school students who were finalists in the Intel Science Talent Contest and found that 70 percent had parents who were immigrants, compared with 12 percent of the U.S. population. In addition, 60 percent of the finalists had parents who had first come to America in the H1-B program, even though H1-B visa holders typically compose less than 1 percent of the population.

In the H1-B debate, he said, "many have not thought about the possibility that the children might be even more productive and make greater contributions than their parents. While the parents seemed to be doing well, I think they probably felt their kids would surpass them."

After interviewing Intel contest finalists and their parents, Mr. Anderson said, he concluded that one reason immigrant parents emphasize science and math so heavily is that they believe advancement in those fields is based more on merit than on such factors as fluency in English or social abilities.

"I talked to one parent who was an architect, and he said he felt it was a difficult profession to get into because it is subjective and involves having the right connections," he said.

Others said the same is true for fields like politics and the law. Many immigrant parents also come from countries where having the right personal connections plays a major role in hiring and advancement, "and realizing they don't have those kinds of connections here, they feel the way to overcome that is to strive for a meritocratic achievement."

The Intel Science Talent Search promotes the idea that its former student competitors have won more than 100 of the world's top science honors, including the Nobel Prize and the National Medal of Science.

Looked at from that perspective, Mr. Anderson says, "those who want to keep out these highly skilled foreign nationals would prevent America from getting a key portion of the next generation of scientists and engineers."

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