One of America's strengths has always been its ability to lure talent from elsewhere. Yet now this nation too often forces foreign-born students educated in our colleges and universities to take their initiative elsewhere. It is a waste of human potential that denies Florida and the nation a competitive edge in the global economy. Congress needs to pass comprehensive reform to stop the brain drain.
Kathleen McGrory of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau put another face to the problem this week, chronicling the story of Juan Gomez, a native Colombian raised and educated in Miami who was forced to leave the country for a career in Brazil. Gomez was 2 years old when his family arrived in New York City in 1990 on a six-month tourist visa. His father applied for and was rejected for political asylum; the family ignored an order to leave the country and eventually settled in South Florida, where Juan Gomez excelled in school, finishing near the top of his class at Killian Senior High.
His case drew the attention of South Florida's congressional delegation after federal officers showed up to deport the Gomezes in 2007. Juan Gomez was allowed to remain. He worked his way through the honors program at Miami Dade College. Georgetown University awarded him a scholarship. When he graduated, Gomez landed a job on Wall Street, but his pathway came to an abrupt end last month. His application to extend his work permit got tied up in the backlog of similar requests, and he left for a new job in Brazil in order to continue supporting his parents and to prevent any fallout down the road for overstaying his legal residency.
Gomez's case is hardly unique. Countless illegal immigrants were brought here as children through no fault of their own, and they have attended public schools and given back to their communities to the extent the law has allowed. This week, the presidents of some of Florida's largest colleges and universities — including Eckerd College and the Universities of South Florida and Miami — co-signed a letter to Florida's U.S. House delegation urging members to support meaningful immigration reform, citing the costs of this brain drain to the economy. In 2009, most students in graduate-level science, math and high-tech programs at the state's research universities were foreign-born. Three of every five in doctoral engineering studies were noncitizens. And because they lack a clear path to remain in America after graduation, with all the fruits of establishing themselves in their careers and communities, these students are picking up their diplomas and buying tickets to start new lives overseas.
Gomez's decision to leave shows what happens when the government takes months to process a routine permit. But his departure is compounded many times by an immigration policy that denies the United States an ability to retain the very educated workforce it has created. Congress needs to fix a system that's become little more than a publicly subsidized farm club for America's competitors.