Opportunity fuels skilled immigrants’ exodus

By Emily Bazar, USA TODAY

It wasn’t the U.S. economy that convinced Tao Guo to leave the USA. It was the Chinese economy.

After 24 years in the United States, the 46-year-old naturalized citizen moved to Shanghai in December to take a high-level position at WuXi AppTec, which does research for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

He’s among a growing number of highly skilled immigrants who are leaving the USA to take jobs in their native countries, particularly India and China. The International Monetary Fund projects that China’s gross domestic product will grow by 7.5% this year and India’s by 5.4%. In the USA, the GDP is projected to contract by 2.6%.

“They see much more promise in the economic future of those countries,” says Charles Hsu of Bay City Capital in San Francisco. “There’s also a chance for them to move ahead much more rapidly in their careers.”

At WuXi, 80% to 90% of senior managers returned to China from other countries, mostly the USA, says Rich Soll, vice president of medicinal chemistry.

“I have much bigger responsibility than I used to have,” says Guo, the company’s executive director of chemistry. Previously, he was director of chemistry for a pharmaceutical firm in New Jersey.

His wife and teenage children remain in the USA. He visits but plans to keep working in China. “It’s more challenging,” he says. “It’s more rewarding.”

Other skilled immigrants don’t want to leave but say immigration-related delays give them no choice.

Nil Dutta, 37, came to the USA in 1999 on a student visa and after getting two master’s degrees at the University of Michigan, he took a job at a European software company with offices here. He now has an H-1B visa for skilled workers.

Dutta, who lives in Hampton Roads, Va., applied for legal permanent residency, also called green-card status, in 2004 and most likely still faces years of waiting. The government is just now processing applications made in his category on or before April 15, 2001.

A maximum of 140,000 green cards are awarded on employment-based visas each year, and that quota is divided into categories for classes of workers and a set percentage for each country.

Applicants from India and China face especially long waits because more of them apply, says Bill Hing, law professor at the University of California-Davis. “Since there are more applicants than visas available each year, there’s a carry-over to the next year,” he says.

Dutta says the wait is wearing on him. Visa rules limit his family’s travel, he says, and his ability to get a promotion.

He’s considering returning to India, where he has two job offers. He says he’s likely to make the move in the spring.

“I had a lot of enthusiasm and was very eager to work for this country. It’s all fizzled out. It seems I’m not wanted,” Dutta says. “In 10 to 15 years, I could be much better off in terms of position as well as money in India.”