Homegrown President Obama, seen here visiting at technical college in North Carolina, supports bringing more foreign STEM workers to the US, despite high unemployment among US workers. (Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images)

In late February, Christine Miller and Sona Shah went to the Capitol Hill office of Miller’s senator, Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, to talk about immigration reform and the job market for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers. Miller, an American-born MIT grad with a PhD in biochemistry, had 20 years of research experience when Johns Hopkins University laid her off in 2009 because of funding cuts. Shah, an Indian-born US citizen with degrees in physics and engineering, had been laid off earlier by a computer company that was simultaneously hiring foreign workers on temporary visas. Proposals to increase admission of foreign stem workers to the US, Miller and Shah told Erin Neill, a member of Mikulski’s staff, would worsen the already glutted stem labor market.

According to Miller, Neill told them this is not the argument “she normally encounters on this issue.” The conventional wisdom is that tech companies and universities can’t find enough homegrown scientists to hire, so they need to import them from China and India. Neill suggested to Miller and Shah that “we would have more impact if we represented a large, organized group.”

Miller and Shah are, in fact, part of a large group. Figures from the National Institutes of Health, the National Academies, the National Science Foundation, and other sources indicate that hundreds of thousands of STEM workers in the US are unemployed or underemployed. But they are not organized, and their story is being largely ignored in the debate over immigration reform.

The two main STEM-related proposals currently part of that debate in Congress would increase the number of temporary high-skill worker visas (also called guestworker visas), and give green cards to every foreign graduate of an American college with a master’s or PhD in a STEM field. Media coverage of these proposals has generally hewed, uncritically, to the unfounded notion that America isn’t producing enough native talent in the science and engineering fields to satisfy the demands of businesses and universities—and that foreign-born workers tend to be more entrepreneurial and innovative than their American-born counterparts. Allowing more stem immigrants, the story goes, is key to adding jobs to the beleaguered US economy.

It is a narrative that has been skillfully packaged and promoted by well-funded advocacy groups as essential to the national interest, but in reality it reflects the economic interests of tech companies and universities.

High-tech titans like Bill Gates, Steve Case, and Mark Zuckerberg are repeatedly quoted proclaiming a dearth of talent that imperils the nation’s future. Politicians, advocates, and articles and op-eds published by media outlets—including The New York Times, Forbes, CNN, Slate, and others—invoke such foreign-born entrepreneurs as Google’s Sergey Brin or Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, as if arrival from abroad (Brin and Yang came to the US as children) explains the success of the companies they founded . . . with partners who are US natives. Journalists endorse studies that trumpet the job-creating skills of these entrepreneurs from abroad, while ignoring the weaknesses that other scholars find in the research.

Meanwhile, The National Science Board’s biennial book, Science and Engineering Indicators, consistently finds that the US produces several times the number of STEM graduates than can get jobs in their fields. Recent reports from the National Institutes of Health, the National Academies, and the American Chemical Society warn that overproduction of STEM PhDs is damaging America’s ability to recruit native-born talent, and advise universities to limit the number of doctorates they produce, especially in the severely glutted life sciences. In June 2012, for instance, the American Chemical Society’s annual survey found record unemployment among its members, with only 38 percent of new PhDs, 50 percent of new master’s graduates, and 33 percent of new bachelor’s graduates in fulltime jobs. Overall, STEM unemployment in the US is more than twice its pre-recession level, according to congressional testimony by Ron Hira, a science-labor-force expert at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

And yet, a bill introduced in Congress last year that would have heeded the NIH recommendation by limiting visas for biomedical scientists was attacked in a Forbes article that suggested it could delay progress on the search for a cure for cancer by keeping out able researchers.

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Foreign-born scientists and engineers have, of course, contributed significantly to American society as innovators and entrepreneurs—and the nation’s immigration policy certainly needs repair. But many leading STEM-labor-force experts agree that the great majority of stem workers entering the country contribute less to innovative breakthroughs or job growth for Americans than to the bottom lines of the companies and universities that hire them.

Beryl Lieff Benderly is a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.