Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Leaving the U.S.

In a speech last week to Facebook employees, President Obama discussed the role immigrant entrepreneurs play in U.S. economic competitiveness. "We want more Andy Groves here in the United States," he told the crowd, touching on the Hungarian-born entrepreneur's startup success. "We don't want them starting Intel in China or starting it in France."

Sadly, our President didn't back his words with action. He simply said he would support "comprehensive immigration reform," which is legislation that has no chance of passing. This is because it tries to fix all the problems with immigration at the same time. Most Americans will support legislation to admit more doctors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, but they are deeply divided on the issue of amnesty for illegal immigrants. So we're in a messy stalemate.

Our leaders don't seem to understand the urgency of the situation. They fail to recognize how much the world has changed. Entrepreneurs see abundant opportunities in places like India and China now. The world's best and brightest can stay home and achieve as much success as they could in the U.S. Skilled workers who immigrated to the U.S. are optimistic about these opportunities; many are headed back home.

My team at Duke, UC-Berkeley, and Harvard researches the role that skilled immigrant entrepreneurs play in U.S.competitiveness. After we published our study on the reverse brain drain, many academics and policymakers told me entrepreneurs would be frustrated in their native countries and return to the U.S. They pointed to India's weak infrastructure, China's authoritarianism, and the corruption and red tape in both countries.

This prediction seemed wrong based on our observations during visits to India and China, so we launched a project to learn about the entrepreneurial landscape there. Over eight months, we surveyed 153 workers who had studied or worked in the U.S.and returned to India to start companies, and 111 who went back to China. We detail our findings in our new study, The Grass Is Indeed Greener in India and China for Returnee Entrepreneurs. It shows that the majority of returnee entrepreneurs are doing better at home than they believe they would do in the U.S.