While Ankit Agarwal was a chemical-engineering postdoc at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he came up with an idea that could save thousands of lives.
An expert in nanotechnology, Mr. Agarwal helped devise a way of embedding tiny amounts of silver, a known antibacterial agent, into skin grafts. That, he says, could prevent most of the 100,000 deaths each year in the United States attributed to infections of the grafts, which are used on patients recovering from burns, ulcers, or surgeries.
Yet Mr. Agarwal faced one big obstacle to saving all those lives: He is a native of India, so staying in the United States and starting a company that could make his new style of graft probably meant waiting several years while working for another U.S. company that would sponsor his visa application.
"That," he said, calculating the various minimum time commitments involved, "would have put my start-up idea on hold for four years." With so many lives at stake, it was a wait that Mr. Agarwal wasn't willing to accept.
The dilemma Mr. Agarwal faced was not unique. Every year some 40,000 foreign students earn a master's or doctoral degree in science, mathematics, and engineering fields from U.S. universities. Some, including Mr. Agarwal, figure out creative ways to stay. But surveys show thousands more might be interested in staying in the United States if allowed by immigration law.
Many of those graduates can in fact remain in the United States, at least for a little while. Under current law, science and engineering students are allowed to stay in the country for up to 29 months after graduation if they are working. And those with jobs can then apply for one of a limited number of employment-based visas—a category in which the annual demand regularly outstrips the supply.
But, as Mr. Agarwal learned, the odds are even slimmer for those foreign graduates who want to stay and start their own companies. There's no specific visa category for budding entrepreneurs, and there are few options for foreigners wanting to stay in the country while self-employed.
"It is clear that we don't make it easy" on foreign entrepreneurs, said Jean-Lou Chameau, president of the California Institute of Technology. Mr. Chameau is among 90 university presidents who in June signed a letter to the White House and Congressional leaders describing the severe economic costs of expelling such highly skilled scientists.
The presidents cited a new study showing that foreign-born inventors were credited as contributors to more than 75 percent of the patents issued last year to the nation's top 10 patent-producing universities. The study was produced by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group of mayors and business leaders seeking changes in immigration law.
The patent data is "irrefutable proof of the important role immigrants play in American innovation," the university presidents wrote in their letter.

65,000 temporary visas

The traditional focus of such lobbying efforts has been the H-1B program. A primary tool of the U.S. high-tech industry, it allows 65,000 temporary visas a year for companies to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations. Even with that many visas, all those slots were taken this year within just 10 weeks.
The H-1B program is limited by Congress in large part because of fears that its beneficiaries are taking jobs from Americans. Advocates reject such objections, citing numbers that show that the United States has too few qualified workers for the number of high-tech job vacancies. A Georgetown University analysis projects that the country will face a shortfall of 230,000 qualified advanced-degree science and technology workers by 2018.
And the United States will increasingly need foreigners to help fill that shortfall, especially as cash-strapped U.S. universities fill their classrooms with foreign-born students who can afford tuition. The latest annual report by the Institute of International Education showed the number of foreign-born students at U.S. colleges increased 5 percent for the 2010-11 academic year, marking the fifth straight year of growth.
Now Mr. Chameau and other university leaders are part of a wider effort to move beyond the arguments over the H-1B visa by putting more attention on the specific need to keep foreign entrepreneurs with the skills to start companies and create even more jobs.
So far, the options for foreign science graduates who want to start a company in the United States are few.
For a self-employed foreigner, the main U.S. visa categories are "O-1," for a temporary stay, and "EB-1," for the path toward a green card and permanent residency. Both are broadly defined categories, designed for foreigners deemed to have an "extraordinary ability" in a particular field. That's doesn't necessarily mean an entrepreneur, and the eligible fields are far beyond just the sciences, extending to the arts, business, athletics, and entertainment.
And the allocation of such visas is well below even the limited H-1B numbers, with about 12,000 O-1s and 25,000 EB-1s issued last year. U.S. immigration law does have an even smaller visa category specifically designed for "entrepreneurs," though the term in this case is generally understood to mean wealthy investors, each of whom must put at least $500,000 into a job-creating project.

A Success Story

Out of desperation, Mr. Agarwal applied for a visa in the EB-1 category. He said he asked several immigration law firms for help, and was repeatedly told that the odds were so low their lawyers didn't want to risk their reputations by trying. He finally did find one lawyer, John J. Gallini in the Boston area, who agreed to try, having had luck with science graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mr. Gallini succeeded, winning Mr. Agarwal the visa and then a green card in June 2011. Even Mr. Agarwal admits, however, that his success was an anomaly, due largely to his determination in the face of a system set up largely to reject him.
For scientists seeking an EB-1 visa, the law sets an expectation that seems designed to rule out even the most accomplished young entrepreneurs, suggesting that the qualifications of applicants be measured by existing career accomplishments such as a Nobel Prize.
Judged by potential, Mr. Agarwal presents a more compelling case. He moved to the United States in 2002 to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Iowa State University. He completed the degree in 2007 and moved to Wisconsin for postdoctoral research work.
Along the way, he came to realize how his work with nanoparticles could improve the technology of skin grafts. About 10 million people a year need skin grafts in the United States, Mr. Agarwal said. At least 10 percent of those patients end up with an infected wound, and about 100,000 of them die, he said.
The chemical element silver is a bacteria-killing disinfectant, but current formulations contain too much silver and are too corrosive to be incorporated into artificial skin, Mr. Agarwal said. He said his new method solves that problem by allowing minute amounts of a stabilized form of silver to be incorporated on a nanoscale into artificial skin, thereby giving patients just enough silver to prevent infections.
"It's a nano-film, so we put it only on the wound-contact surface of the artificial skin," Mr. Agarwal said.

A New Effort

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers visa programs, cannot comment publicly on individual cases such as Mr. Agarwal's, said an agency spokesman, Daniel Cosgrove. But the agency realizes the need to encourage entrepreneurs and recently began a new program to help them.
The effort, announced this year, is called "Entrepreneurs in Residence." So far it consists largely of a team of experts advising the agency on ways it can change policies and practices to boost entrepreneurship.
The group's recommendations, which are about to be adopted, include creating a new Web portal and assembling a team of specialized immigration officers dedicated to helping entrepreneurs. But the program is designed only for temporary visas, and its changes cannot alter Congress's numerical limits on immigration.
Still, the immigration agency does have some flexibility, if it chooses to use it. Agency data compiled for The Chronicle show that the agency last year granted 2,118 permanent visas in the category used by Mr. Agarwal, reserved for immigrants "with extraordinary ability." That's a drop of 45 percent from the previous year. And it granted 2,458 visas in a related EB-1 category, for "outstanding professors and researchers," down 39 percent from 2010.
Mr. Cosgrove said the agency made no changes in policies that would affect those numbers, and would not comment on possible reasons for the declines. The agency data do reflect wide year-to-year swings, with the 2010 approvals at the agency's highest levels in five years.
Mr. Gallini, the attorney who helped Mr. Agarwal get his visa, said he sees signs that approval patterns reflect political factors, including Congressional and presidential elections, and periods of growing public awareness of the "brain drain" caused by rejecting highly skilled foreigners.
That variation does appear to be changing, with the agency apparently more determined to set more predictable expectations for approvals, Mr. Gallini said. "There's been a little bit too much subjectivity in the process," he said.
And lawmakers from both parties, though mostly Democrats, are continuing to push for bills that would create new visa categories, including permanent residency, for foreign students who earn advanced degrees in math and science fields.

Doing Better Back Home?

The changes, though, may be coming too slowly. Already there are signs that immigrants in general, and highly trained scientists in particular, are voting with their feet. The Pew Research Center reported in April that net migration from Mexico—­for decades the largest supplier of U.S. immigrants­—has stopped and may have reversed. And experts surveying foreign-born scientists say it's hard to be sure how many of them really want to stay, given all the difficulties involved.
"There are no hard data on this," said Vivek Wadhwa, an executive in residence at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University who produces surveys of immigrant entrepreneurs. "Our research showed that the majority of students wanted to stay a few years after graduation, but they were worried about getting visas, saw greener pastures at home, and planned to return," Mr. Wadhwa said. His work, financed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, also involved interviews with scientists who returned to their native countries and often believe they "are doing better back home," Mr. Wadhwa said.
And even among supporters of expanded entrepreneur visas, it's not immediately clear how to draw the line in a way that would embrace the immigration of talented scientists without encouraging the creation of low-quality diploma mills. Already there have been examples of education-related visa abuses like at Tri-Valley University, a California institution raided last year by federal agents after it was found to be enrolling hundreds of foreign students who actually were working full-time, low-level retail jobs.
As entrepreneur status is hard to define, U.S. policy should tie such visas to a degree in the sciences from an accredited university, Mr. Chameau said. That way, even if a foreign graduate fails as an entrepreneur, he or she will still be valuable to the U.S. economy.
"We are talking here about talented people who will succeed one way or another" in the United States, Mr. Chameau said. "And that success will help us."