The Contributions of Skilled Immigrants to America

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in India, shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with American-born Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonoth of Israel. Their work using x-ray crystallography has provided “fundamental information about the workings of the cellular machinery at the atomic level and is already being exploited by pharmaceutical companies working to make new, more effective antibiotics,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Nobel Prizes

Immigrants to America have a long history of achievement in Nobel Prizes and other forms of international recognition in the sciences. “It is fairly clear that Americans with recent foreign roots are overrepresented in any classification of Americans who have brought honor and recognition to the United States,” concluded the National Research Council, a part of the national Academy of Sciences, in its 1997 report The New Americans. As of 1997, the National Research Council found immigrants made up between one-quarter to one-third of the U.S. Nobel Prize winners: 26 percent in chemistry, 32 percent in physics, 31 percent in physiology medicine, 31 percent in economics and 27 percent in literature.

Some who oppose immigration more generally – or high skill immigration specifically argue they have no problem with America admitting Nobel Prize winners, just not others of lesser distinction. The problem is even America’s recent Nobel Prize winners were often just promising students when they first began the process of immigrating to the United States. For example, Elizabeth Blackburn first came to America in 1975, more than three decades before earning the Nobel Prize in Medicine and 10 years before she published her seminal paper that led to the prize. More generally, there are valuable contributions that can be made to the economy and society that would never be recognized by a Nobel Prize Committee.

Dr. William Ganz developed a “revolutionary catheter to measure blood flow and heart functions” with co-inventor Dr. Jeremy Swan, an immigrant from Ireland. Ganz, a Jew in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi invasion, managed to survive World War II and came to Los Angeles in 1966, no longer wishing to live under a communist regime. The Swan-Ganz device produced “a phenomenal impact on the understanding of cardiovascular disease,” according to Dr. Jeffery W. Moses, director of the Center for Interventional Vascular Therapy at Columbia University Medical Center. In the 1980s, Ganz worked with Dr. P.K. Shah, an immigrant from India and director of cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, in developing clot-dissolving therapies now considered standard for helping victims of heart attacks.

Research on the Contributions of the Foreign-Born

Paula Stephan (Georgia State University) and Sharon G. Levin (University of Missouri-St. Louis) performed extensive research on the contributions of the foreign-born in 6 areas of scientific achievement. Those areas included election to the National Academy of Sciences/National Academy of Engineering, the launching of biotechnology companies and authors of scientific publications. After examining a study group of more than 4,500 scientists and engineers, Stephan and Levin wrote, “Individuals making exceptional contributions to science and engineering in the U.S. are disproportionately drawn from the foreign-born.  We conclude that immigrants have been a source of strength and vitality for U.S. science and, on balance, the U.S. appears to have benefitted from the educational investments made by other countries.”

Among the findings in the Stephan-Levin research were that 19.2 percent of the engineers elected to the National Academy of Engineering are foreign-born, compared to the 13.9 percent of the engineers who were foreign-born in 1980. Also, members of the National Academy of Sciences are “disproportionately foreign-born;” 23.8 percent of the scientists and engineers elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) are foreign-born, compared to 18.3 percent non-natives in the U.S. workforce.

According to Stephan and Levin, “We find the foreign-born to be disproportionately represented among those making exceptional contributions in the physical sciences . . . more than half of the ‘outstanding’ authors in the physical sciences are foreign-born compared to just 20.4 percent of physical scientists who are foreign-born in the scientific labor force as of 1980.”


Stephan and Levin found, “We also find evidence contributions to U.S. science and engineering are disproportionately drawn from the foreign-educated, both at the undergraduate and at the graduate level.”

The research by Stephan and Levin indicate America may be wise to make it easier for those who receive their schooling abroad to immigrate, particularly at the Ph.D. level. But whether we make it easier for those who receive their degrees in America or abroad, it is clear that immigrants make important contributions to science, engineering and related fields in America.

Borderless Economics and the Indian Diaspora

A new book by Robert Guest, business editor for The Economist, focuses on Indian and Chinese immigrants and their connections to India and China. The book is called Borderless Economics.

Personal Connections

The author begins his discussion of Indian immigrants by relating a conversation with Vish Mishra, a venture capitalist.  Mishra related that personal introductions were “absolutely critical” in his line of work. According to Mishra, “If you cold-call, you start from nowhere, it’s laborious and tedious. If you know someone, you can move faster. The advantage of any network is you get to see things you might not otherwise see.”

Guest points to a Kauffman Foundation study that “returning Indian entrepreneurs maintain at least monthly contact with family and friends in America, and 66 percent are in contact at least that often with former colleagues.” The subjects most discussed are customers, markets, technical information and financing.

The Diaspora Helps India

Guest argues against the idea of a “brain drain” hurting home countries. “Nonresident Indians bring ideas and investment back,” writes Guest. “But arguably the biggest favor the diaspora has done for India was to persuade it to open up to the world in the first place. They were not the only force – four decades of stagnation alerted India’s leaders to the possibility that something was wrong with their economic model. But the diaspora was highly influential.”

In the book, Palaniappan Chidambaram, a former finance minister in India, is quoted crediting the emigration of Indians for changing policies inside India: “First, the phenomenal success achieved by Indians abroad by practicing free enterprise meant that if Indians were allowed to function in an open market, they could replicate some of that success here [in India]. Secondly, by 1991 sons and daughters of political leaders and senior civil servants were all going abroad and studying abroad and living and working abroad. I think they played a great part in influencing the thinking of their parents.”

Networks of Innovation

An entire chapter of the book is devoted to how the connections between Indians abroad and those back in India help create innovations. “When ethnic Indians in different countries talk to each other, ideas bounce across borders,” writes Guest. “There is another benefit to the constant nattering that goes on within ethnic networks. As good ideas are passed around, they evolve. Insights are taken apart and recombined in millions of individual brains. Then they are fed back into the network. After a while, new ideas emerge.”

The subtitle of the book is “Chinese Sea Turtles, Indian Fridges and the New Fruits of Global Capitalism.” The “Indian Fridges” referred to in the book comes from the efforts of Indians to build an inexpensive refrigerator that poor people could afford. He describes how Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing, based in Mumbai, developed a refrigerator that costs $69. “The engineering miracle was conceived through a marriage of ideas generated by Indians in India and by Indians overseas,” notes Guest.


While much of the book is devoted to the reality of economics and the benefits of mutual exchange, at one point the author moves away from finance to the patriotism at the core of a naturalization ceremony in America. He describes his initial uneasiness watching a citizenship ceremony in Miami and the boisterous rendition of ‘God Bless the USA” playing at the ceremony’s end. “Where we come from, memories of patriotism warping into something terrible remain vivid,” writes Guest. “But as I look around the hall full of cheering, hugging new Cuban, Venezuelan, Haitian and Russian Americans, I am suddenly swept away by the crowd’s happy frenzy. To my surprise, I feel a tear rolling down my cheek.”

How Well Do Immigrants to America Assimilate?

Do immigrants assimilate or stay forever apart from American society? This question affects nearly all immigration issues, including family and employment-based immigration, both of which concern many Indian immigrants. A lack of consensus on the issue of assimilation has prevented action on broader immigration reform. In addressing the question of immigrants and assimilation it is useful to look at three areas: wage growth, education and English language acquisition.

Historical Concerns About Assimilation

Concerns about the assimilation of immigrants have been a key part of the debate over immigration for much of our nation’s history. Discussing the restrictions on immigration imposed by Congress in the 1920s, historian Oscar Handlin wrote, “The objections to further immigration from Italy and Poland reflected the objectors’ unfavorable observations of the Italians and the Poles they saw about them. The arguments that Greeks and Slovaks could not become good Americans rested on the premise that the Greeks and Slovaks in the United States had not become good Americans.”

Wage Growth

Jeffery S. Passel, senior research associate, Pew Hispanic Center, has developed techniques to differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants in Census data and to track changes based on years in the country. Passel’s research on immigrant wage growth and other issues demonstrates how important it can be to determine legal status when examining data on assimilation.

Census data show legal immigrants experience significant wage gains over time, even surpassing the average family income of natives, in the case of naturalized citizens. But illegal immigrants do not show that type of income gain based on years in the United States. “Average family income for both legal immigrants and refugees in the U.S. for more that 10 years is only 2 to 3 percent below that of natives,” writes Passel. “For longer term naturalized citizen families, average family income is 23 percent higher than native income.” But the average income level of an illegal immigrant family remains well below the average native family (about 35 percent below) even among illegal immigrants in the country 10 years or longer.

Research that did not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants still found significant wage growth among immigrants. Economists Harriet Duleep and Mark Regets found that after a decade in the United States the earnings gap between new immigrants and natives largely disappears, with immigrant wage growth faster than native (6.7 percent vs. 4.4 percent).


A similar story on legal immigrants can be seen in the Pew Hispanic Center’s analysis of Census data on education and immigrants. Overall, 32 percent of legal immigrants have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 30 percent of natives and 15 percent of illegal immigrants.

What about those who did not finish high school (ages 18-24)? Among illegal immigrants, 49 percent did not graduate high school, compared to 21 percent of legal immigrants and 11 percent of natives. Even among illegal immigrants who completed high school, less than half went on to attend college.

In contrast, among immigrants and natives who have completed high school, more legal immigrants have gone on to attend a college than natives – 73 percent of legal immigrants vs. 70 percent of natives – according to Passel’s research.

Education levels for legal immigrants improve across generations, just as they have historically for Americans. “Turning to the data, educational assimilation appears alive and well,” according to Pia Orrenius, senior economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “High school dropout rates for immigrants improve across generations, dropping from 27 percent in the first generation to below the native average of 8.9 percent in the third generation.”

English Language

Do immigrants and their children learn English? Do they want to learn English? It’s possible many Americans believe the answer is “no.” The data suggest otherwise.

In the report The New Americans, produced by the National Research Council, only 3 percent of immigrants in the country 30 years or more reported not speaking English well in the 1990 Census. This illustrates that assimilation takes place. But also how important it is to make judgments on data that are longitudinal, since newly arriving immigrants can skew the totals.

The story is quite positive with the children of immigrants. According to a Pew Hispanic Center survey, 88 percent of second generation children from Latino immigrant families and 94 percent from the third generation said they spoke English very well.

Contrary to concerns Spanish-speaking immigrants will pass along to their children and grandchildren a proclivity to speak Spanish over English, research shows the opposite is true. A study by Frank Bean and Ruben Rumbaut (both University of California, Irvine) and Douglas Massey (Princeton University) found “Although the generational life expectancy of Spanish is greater among Mexicans in Southern California than other groups, its demise is all but assured by the third generation.”

Bean, Rumbaut and Massey concluded, “Based on an analysis of language loss over the generations, the study concludes that English has never been seriously threatened as the dominant language in America, nor is it under threat today.”


The conclusion one draws from the data is that today’s immigrants are indeed assimilating. As a group, they are gainfully employed and experience wage growth over time, education levels rise, and acquisition of the English language increases, particularly in the second generation. This does not mean all immigrants assimilate. But it does mean that, overall, the American “melting pot” continues to work.