The ITAR/Immigration Bifecta of Suck

I know I’ve written about this topic before, but I think it’s worth bringing it up again. When you combine the stupidity of ITAR as it exists with the difficulty of getting even a green-card for your typical foreign engineering student studying in the US, you get a particularly pathetic situation. While they’re in school, they can get plenty of training, they can even work on aerospace related research (there are certain exemptions in ITAR for research done at places like universities). But then when they graduate, they’re screwed.  They only have two options, either go home, or find a job outside aerospace.

This point was driven home to me talking with an India-born aerospace engineering student at the University of Michigan last week.  I was out there giving a talk on space entrepreneurship, and afterward this gal comes up to me to ask for help on what to do about work after graduation. She loves being in America, and doesn’t want to leave. She loves aerospace, and it has been her passion.  But wunderkinden in DC think that somehow preventing her from using her hard-won education to benefit our country is somehow protecting national security or protecting our borders. Conversations like this just make me sick inside. Here’s a talented young lady who wants to contribute to our society.  But because of a combination of stupid laws, that politicians aren’t willing to change for fear of looking “soft on defense” or “weak on immigration”, I bet there are thousands or tens of thousands of foreign-born engineering students facing similarly crappy choices.

I just think about my coworker Ian. Here’s an enormously talented GN&C engineer, who did amazing things at Masten, and is making a huge contribution at Altius. The only reason why he wasn’t screwed by ITAR and Immigration laws was because he was from Cuba, and due to Florida politics, Cubans have a much easier time getting a green card and eventual citizenship.  Had he been born on a different island in the Caribbean, it would’ve been official US policy to tell him to go take a flying leap and work for some other country.

I have to agree with @joestump’s tweet: “If Obama was serious about us out-innovating and out-building, we should be granting every law abiding immigrant w/ a degree legal status.”

In the end I was able to give this young lady a suggestion on how to proceed. I suggested that she find a job outside of aerospace (and outside of ITAR-covered technologies) that required similar skills to the job she wants to do inside aerospace. That way she could work for a few years until she could get green-card status, and then she could move back to aerospace. In her case it worked, but I wonder how often our shortsighted policies mean that we’re training engineers for foreign countries who would rather stay here and be Americans.

Something needs to change.


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