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.
"We have some of the best universities in the world for science and technology," said Keith Grzelak, vice president of government relations for IEEE-USA, which supports the career and public policy interests of 210,000 engineering, computing and technology professionals. "We should be taking advantage of that. We should be stealing that brain power and Americanizing them."
In the tech industry, workforce and marketplace competition are global, he said. And there aren't a set number of jobs.
"If you skim the world's gene pool and bring the brightest people here, the total number of jobs might grow," he said. "Someone who is highly prolific might found a company that employs 2,000 engineers."
From 2000 to 2007, the addition of 100 foreign-born workers to America's science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) industries resulted in 262 new jobs for U.S. natives, according to a report released last month by the American Enterprise Institute.
Bringing in highly skilled immigrants creates jobs because they fill gaps in the labor market, said Madeline Zavodyny, author of the study and a professor of economics at Agnes Scott College in Georgia. During the past decade, jobs in science and engineering grew three times faster than the rest of the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Despite economic turmoil, a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute found 25 percent of firms report having difficulty hiring.
Hiring people to fill these jobs sparks a chain reaction of job growth, Zavodyny said. If there's an engineer to design a product, companies will also need to hire sales people to sell the product, secretaries to push the paperwork and managers to oversee the business side of things.
"Immigration really is a boon to the STEM fields," she said. "And the STEM fields really are the future of our economy."
Within six months (immigration issues aside), Banaei and his professor hope to hire two people to help them hammer the kinks out of their invention, he said. Already, the fabric is as flexible as a piece of paper, but it could be softer. They hope to increase power generation and tweak the technology so they can offer a variety of different colors.
"I want it to be fashionable," he said.
Within a year they expect to hire a few more people to manage the business and marketing side of the endeavor. If the product is received well, theyll keep on hiring.
"We have limited fuel resources and there is a real need for renewable sources of energy," he said. "I can't predict the future, but I am really excited because I think I've come up with a good solution."
Jobs for Americans
Some argue, though, the job growth observed by the American Enterprise Institute can not be attributed to immigration.
Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California Davis, called the study a "perfect example of the fallacy of false correlation."
"If there is a job-creation effect, it comes from the job, not the worker," he said. "We'd get the same effect by filling such jobs with a qualified American ... and, yes, as has been shown many times, qualified Americans do exist."
While unemployment among more established scientists and engineers is low, among recent college graduates, 14 percent don't have jobs, according to a report published last month by the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Within two years of graduating, 65 percent of science and engineering graduates are either employed in or training for a career in another field.
Increasing high-skilled immigration, as the BRAIN Act proposes, would hold down salaries and discourage Americans from entering STEM fields, Matloff said. A recent study from Georgetown University found engineering has the lowest wage growth of any major profession — a fact Matloff attributes to increasing numbers of immigrant workers.
"Staple a green card to their diplomas" bills like the BRAIN Act are a "disaster," he said.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank that advocates for lower immigration levels, said the type of brilliant immigrants who create high numbers of American jobs, don't have trouble getting green cards.
"We're not talking about Einsteins here," he said. "The question really boils down to, should getting a master's degree earn you a green card? I say absolutely not. Immigration to the U.S. is something we should reserve for special talents, for people who are remarkable in their fields."
The current immigration system accomplishes that, he said. Employment-based green cards are passed out in tiers. Of those available to high priority workers — those who exhibit extraordinary abilities — about 10,000 go unused every year. It's at the next tier down, which includes people who hold advanced college degrees, that things get backed up.
It remains to be seen whether Banaei's invention will qualify him as a priority worker or he will have to get in line behind thousands of other Ph.D. graduates.
He is watching the debate with bated breath.
"Ideally, I would like to see my product go to market in the U.S.," he said. "I'm hoping we can find a way to do that."