“Keep ‘Em Here” Logic Backfires?

Supporters of expanding the H-1B visa program frequently exclaim, “It makes no sense to train foreign students in our universities but then send them home after graduation, to work for our competitors.” President Obama has said this numerous times.

The claim is not true to begin with. Foreign STEM students can work in the U.S. for 2.5 years under the OPT program, which the Obama people are well aware of, since they are trying to extend that 2.5 years to 6.

But there is more to it than that, because giving the foreign students green cards and thus later enabling their naturalization doesn’t mean that they’ll stay here. On the contrary, they may indeed “go back home to work for our competitors” — taking with them U.S. industrial or government secrets that they’ve acquired in the U.S. in the years since graduation.

Professor Rongxing Li of Ohio State University is now suspected by the FBI of doing exactly that. A naturalized citizen originally from China, Li suddenly resigned his OSU position and returned to China, whereabouts unknown, according to reports. Though I would suggest some skepticism about the accuracy of these early reports, things look pretty grim at this point.

Several times a year, cases of alleged espionage by Chinese foreign students and immigrants hit the news, and in many instances, the accused have eventually pleaded guilty. But in spite of the many such news articles sent to me by readers of this blog, I usually don’t discuss them, a rare exception being a post I made in May.

However, this case is different, because Dr. Li can legitimately be described as in the “best and brightest” category. He held a prestigious endowed chair at OSU; he was editor-in-chief of a prominent academic journal; he was a fellow (a major honor) of a national research society; and most importantly for the present context, has been selected to head a large project for NASA.

If it turns out that Li has indeed been up to no good, his case will be an excellent example of the folly of the “Don’t send them home to work for our competitors” rallying cry by the pro-H-1B crowd.

It should also be mentioned that most of Li’s research coathors, presumably large made up of his graduate students at OSU, appear to be from China.

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7 thoughts on ““Keep ‘Em Here” Logic Backfires?

  1. Many of the intellectual achievements of our society are industrial secrets. This includes agriculture (corn varieties, soybean, other crops), chemical (herbicides, fungicides), and so forth. Then we hire foreign students to work on them. They do steal them. Chinese have been caught at airports with seeds in packets. Hire an H-1B, lose your intellectual property.

    SC Edison has just replaced American IT staff with Indians. SC Edison has a nuclear plant. We now have foreign nationals, who may be under the control of the Indian military, who are in control, in one sense or another, of a nuclear plant. I am not comfortable with that.

    Another area where I believe a lot of H-1B have an impact is in financial services. There are a lot of breaches of firewalls and theft of credit card numbers. Some of these have happened because of H-1Bs taking information home. I have no proof of this, but it happens more and more. Industrial espionage can and does include such information.

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    • Paul,

      You are correct about H1-B and their impact on financial services companies. USAA uses H1-B in the development and production support of all their lines of business (insurance, banking, and investment management company). I have heard directly from H1-B visa holders that they are working at State Farm and Bank of America.

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  2. I worked for a company founded by immigrant Chinese. They explained to me that in China illegally stolen software is a way of life. They seemed OK with the fact that 90% of software is illegal in China, and they explained that you’d still get rich from revenues on the 10%.

    My understanding is that we have a long history with China and their disrespect for intellectual property rights, and we seem reticent to deal with the issue.

    Don’t forget when Bill Clinton was President, there were trade secrets regarding military being sold / stolen by Chinese nationals. There are also allegations that Clinton benefited from these actions.

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  3. My biggest concern are the large number of foreign born nationals who have divided loyalties and are involved in defense and national security research. Our taxpayer funded research is being taken directly to foreign universities and government agencies through collaborations and presentations. No telling what else is being transferred behind closed doors. To make matters even more troubling, universities are paying the travel bills for this transfer of technology.

    Given the generally lax security at universities and the unguarded conduct of research assistants and post docs, even those not actively involved in the research can gain valuable information about confidential, sensitive information.

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