Image of the Nobel Prize Medal. Source:

Image of the Nobel Prize Medal. Source:

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated PhDs do it…

In this case, I’m not referring to falling in love as in the popular song from the 1930s, but migrating.  There are many aspects to what drives people to leave their country of birth and make a new country home.  When people rail against immigrants, I have to assume they don’t understand the economic and cultural benefits that our country has gained from so many over the years. Do they think that you can determine at birth what someone will accomplish? High skilled immigration is vitally important but if one focuses solely on those we know have reached a certain pinnacle, we are leaving out many more that could achieve great things if given the opportunities that so many of our residents take for granted.

One of the pinnacles of intellectual success has been awarded over the last several weeks: the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize Committee just completed announcing the winners of its prestigious awards for chemists, physicists, doctors, economists, writers, and those interdisciplinarians whose work overlaps into one of the fields.

What fascinates me, as an immigration attorney with feet in both the U.S. and U.K. for my practice, is that so many are immigrants.  For the U.S. alone, the Institute for Immigrant Research at George Mason University in Virginia, notes that from 1901-2013, “30.7% of these U.S. awarded Nobel Prizes are garnered by persons who immigrated to the United States.” That percentage far exceeds the proportion of the U.S. population which is foreign-born, which in 2010 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated at 12.9%.  Again and again we see that immigrants contribute to a nation’s wealth and this is no exception.

Three of this year’s winners are particularly interesting examples.  Shuji Nakamura, originally from Japan was awarded for his work in Physics with the University of California, Santa Barbara (USCB).   As UCSB reports, Dr. Nakamura was born and educated in Japan, coming to the US as a visiting research associate; he has since made his career in the U.S. and his research has led to the development of a lamp that might help the estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide without access to a power grid.

John O’Keefe, a native New Yorker, who was this year awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work with University College London, is quoted as saying immigration rules are “a very, very large obstacle” to hiring the best scientists.  While he was referring to the U.K. immigration rules, this statement could easily be projected to the U.S. where immigration laws drafted decades ago have not kept up with business, technology or the reality of the global economy.  And finally, another winner from the U.K., Malala Yousafzai, is also an immigrant.  Originally from Pakistan, Ms. Yousafzai is the youngest Nobel Laureate in history and is in the process of receiving honorary citizenship from Canada.

What these Nobel Laureates show us is that the best and the brightest are mobile and the U.S. must be able to compete for talent on a global stage.  The U.S. needs an immigration system that works at every level, high to low skill and everywhere in between, a system that takes into account the market needs and the importance of family reunification. We don’t have that now, and it is incredibly disappointing that Congress has yet to do its duty and pass good legislation that will make a real difference for all.  Who knows, should Congress act, they may find themselves recipients of the Nobel Prize for conferring  “the greatest benefit on mankind.” – common sense immigration reform.

Written by Anastasia Tonello, AILA Treasurer