“THE US has the best research universities in the world, which is why we attract the best students from around the world. Forcing them to leave, rather than allowing them to stay and add their skills and knowledge to our economy, is one of the most short-sighted policies we have.”

These words were spoken by Michael Hennessy, the president of Stanford University. The message to the Obama administration seeking to revitalise efforts for immigration reform was clear: if the American economy is to remain vital, it is crucial to support the influx of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates into the country and then provide them with incentives to remain.

Proponents also cite studies that suggest that STEM graduates at top American research universities are disproportionately likely to initiate entrepreneurial start-ups that contribute to the economy and the intellectual capital available in the country they make their home. One recent example includes WhatsApp, which recently sold to Facebook for $19 billion. It was founded by a Ukrainian immigrant.

This immigration debate, and who counts as the ‘good’ immigrant and who does not, is an old one and it pertains not simply to host countries such as the US but also to labour-supplying countries like Pakistan, India, and numerous others who will likely see their best and brightest attracted to foreign shores.

The future may see highly skilled immigrants enjoy greater labour mobility.
On the American side, the conversation seems to be moving in favour of creating a more merit-based immigration system, one that removes regulations and curbs on those belonging to certain highly skilled categories.

A recent survey of policymakers at the American Hoover Institution Working Group on immigration found that 89pc of the 38 people polled favoured a switch to a more merit-based immigration system. Furthermore, 72pc favoured unlimited green cards for scientists.

The group from the Hoover Institution is not a representative sample of the American population, where many continue to believe that an influx of immigrants takes away jobs from the local population.

However, the fact that these precepts are being seriously considered at the policymaking level suggests that there is a possibility for a future in which highly skilled immigrants, particularly scientists, engineers, doctors, researchers and others, would enjoy greater labour mobility than they do currently.

If the practice spreads to more countries in the global north and is actually adopted as policy, a time could be near when countries compete with each other to attract these highly skilled workers.

Instead of a system that leaves even the most talented people in the global south begging for admission in interminable visa lines, there could be one in which the individual could choose which country provides the best potential match for his or her skills.

The question that remains is what this sort of system would do to the labour markets of the global south. If the precept that talent is attracted to opportunity is indeed true, then these smaller countries, facing a host of problems at home and without the resources to devote to developing environments for research and entrepreneurship, are likely to lose the very people who could make things better.

Within Pakistan, brain drain is often looked at as one of the reasons why the country remains stuck in a quagmire of apathy and stagnation. But that of course is one way of looking at the equation. It could also be argued that within Pakistan merit does not equal much of a chance of economic success or upward mobility.

Numerous other factors such as family connections, endemic corruption, and a general lack of respect for the self-made soul all intervene in the path of success for the would-be scientist, engineer, or other entrepreneur. Given these circumstances, the creation of relatively more egalitarian environments — where hard work, intellectual prowess and original thought would count for more than the mediocrities of name and lineage — may mean the difference between the waste and use of talent.

Then, again, is the question of global inequality. It would seem that transferring intellectual capital from developing to developed nations would also continue to make the world an even more unequal place. But research carried out in recent years reveals this premise to be false.

In India, remittances from a nearly 25 million-strong immigrant labour force scattered around the world sent $24bn back into the Indian economy, providing a reliable source of rejuvenation and investment in the local market. Other studies done by the World Bank in countries like Mali also demonstrate that the influx of remittances has been shown to reduce the poverty rates in these countries.

Admittedly, the data is piecemeal and the numbers of immigrants sending back money to their home economies is not separated by skill level (ie it includes both highly skilled and unskilled labourers).

In the Pakistani context, looking at remittances is also useful because unlike other sources of revenue generated locally, these represent a source which is not affected by the tumultuous law and order situation in the country. Those that earn abroad can send money to family within the country even while the latter is ravaged by the uncertainties of war and conflict.

The instatement of the merit visa is not an impending reality. While policymakers in the developed nations of the industrial north may be considering the premise, the realities of local politics and the evils of nativism and racism restrict what they may be able to do.

For the talented, however, such a construction would make achievement less a product of luck or birthright and bring their futures into the far more egalitarian realm of intellect and ability.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.