ORLANDO, Fla. — There are a lot of things Ph.D. student Esmaeil-Hooman Banaei could create using the electricity-generating fabric he has invented: backpacks that harness the energy of the sun to power cell phones, tents that create their own electricity, and even jobs.
But before he can do any of it, the brilliant 30-year-old electrical engineer, an Iranian who came to the United States on a student visa, has to duck and dodge his way through the country's immigration system — a process that, for some immigrants, spans decades. As Banaei's graduation from University of Central Florida inches closer, so does a dreaded decision. Is he willing to soldier through years of impermanence to pursue the dream of becoming American? Or should he go elsewhere to launch his business?
"I would like to stay in America," he said. "But the instability [of not having a green card] is not an ideal situation for my family."
Banaei has reason to hope for reprieve. Congress is tossing around a number of bills that could streamline the immigration process for highly skilled foreigners. The latest — and some insiders say, the most likely to pass — is Rep. Tim Griffin's BRAIN Act, short for Bringing and Retaining Accomplished Innovators for the Nation, which would reshuffle the way green cards are distributed to grant more to foreigners who earn advanced degrees in science and engineering at American universities. Backers argue the proposal is more than just an immigration solution. It is also a creative fix for the nation's unemployment problem.
"We are having the wrong immigration debate," said Jeremy Robbins, Policy Advisor and Special Counsel to the Mayor of New York City. "All we talk about is border control when there is a whole other side of immigration that, at this point in time, is much more important. And that is that immigration is a huge boon in a down economy."
But even though the idea behind the BRAIN Act, which is backed by research that suggests increasing high-skilled immigration promotes job growth, has garnered bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, the public remains split on immigration's effect on the economy. While 54 percent of people believe immigrant entrepreneurs like Banaei create new jobs, 57 percent believe immigrants take jobs from native workers, according to the 2011 "Transatlantic Trends: Immigration" survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund. BRAIN Act opponents argue bringing in immigrant scientists and engineers doesn't make sense at a time when unemployment among recent American-born science and technology graduates is at 14 percent.
Skimming the world's gene pool
A small square of Banaei's cloth, which he developed with the help of Professor Ayman Abouraddy at UCF, can collect enough energy from the sun in one hour to fuel a 30 minute call on a smart phone. Black hair mussed, wire-rimmed glasses pushed up the bridge of his nose, Banaei spends most of his days, nights and weekends in the UCF lab, tweaking this, tweaking that, working to perfect the shimmering, electricity-creating fabric.
"It's my whole life — days and nights," he said. "My nightmares are about this product not working and my sweet dreams are seeing people wearing clothing, hanging curtains and using tents made out of this fabric."
It was in search of an opportunity like this that Banaei came to the United States. While studying photonics at a university in Iran, he noticed all the major articles in his field seemed to trace back to UCF.
"The quality of the education in Iran was not satisfactory for me," he said. "Here I am working with great scientists, doing top research and publishing in the most prestigious journals. That is not something I could imagine back in Iran."
Twenty-four percent of master's students and 33 percent of doctoral students enrolled in U.S. science and engineering programs are immigrants like Banaei, according to the National Science Board. Fifty-seven percent of postdoctoral science and engineering students are foreigners on temporary visas.