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The Global Race for Talent

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In a recent article in The Yale Law Journal (“Picking Winners: Olympic Citizenship and the Global Race for Talent”, Ayelet Schachar explores a phenomenon that anyone who has watched the Olympics, even in passing, has surely noticed: many Olympic athletes are highly mobile, and don’t feel bound to compete on behalf of their “own” country. And so you have “Italian” hockey players who have never been to Italy, and “Russian” basketball stars unable to locate Moscow on a map. Many countries, including the United States, fast-track citizenship for athletes they believe will bolster their squads. In a 2008 article “Swapping Passports in Pursuit of Olympic Medals,” the New York Times also examined this trend. Instant citizenship is mutually beneficial for the athlete seeking to advance his or her athletic career, and the nation seeking to upgrade the quality of its Olympic contingent.

Schachar, a University of Toronto Professor of Law, Political Science & Global Affairs, meditates on the implications of citizenship as a tool to advance a nation’s interests. He remarks, “[C]ountries seeking to attract Nobel Prize contenders, gifted technology wizards, acclaimed artists, promising Olympians, and other high-demand migrants have come to realize the attractive power of citizenship. This represents a significant shift in the conception of citizenship—turning an institution steeped with notions of collective identity, belonging, loyalty, and perhaps even sacrifice into a recruitment tool for bolstering a nation’s standing relative to its competitors.”

As Schachar notes, transplanted Olympic athletes and prize-winning chemists are hardly immigrants in the traditional sense of the word, rather they are global free agents who are courted for their talents. A mix of national governments, universities, corporations and other institutions are vying for a limited number of high-value candidates. This exchange can confer huge benefits for both parties. One of the factors that made the U.S. such a dominant power following WWII was the injection of a group of highly talented scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers and academics it received from war ravaged Europe.

In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the United States held an overweening advantage relative to other nations in attracting talented immigrants. This is no longer the case, and the U.S. is just one of many countries from which a talented migrant might choose. Moreover, in many cases, the draw is not so much a given nation or even a city, but a particular university, company, agency or program within that nation. In other words, a top biochemist may be attracted to, and courted by, Caltech or the Max Planck Society, and because these institutions are in the U.S. and Germany respectively, emigration to those countries becomes necessary.

National governments may be more or less helpful in encouraging talented foreigners, but regardless typically have visa categories designed with such individuals in mind. In the U.S., the EB-1 “first preference” immigrant visa category targets extraordinary and outstanding individuals. The “first preference” EB-1 visa, is, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services, “reserved for persons of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics; outstanding professors or researchers; and multinational executives and managers.” These are not “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” but rather are typically well-educated, highly skilled and cosmopolitan individuals.

Schachar expresses some misgivings about the eroding nature of citizenship when there is a fast-track for the talented, but that doesn’t change the nature of the global marketplace for exceptional individuals, and for citizenship as a good. This has ramifications not just for premium immigrants, but for entire nations. Every time the U.S. denies, or makes extremely burdensome, the acquisition of a visa for a talented foreigner, you can be sure that Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, wherever, will fill that void. Moreover, several countries that used to be considered members of the “Third World” aren’t so third anymore. Their best and brightest can now do quite well at home and have less incentive to go abroad, particularly if the process is excessively difficult and uncertain.

For the United States, fair examinations in keeping with the current regulations are in order when it comes to EB-1 visas. Unjustified and capricious denials or “requests for evidence” do not serve the immigrants in question, nor do they serve the U.S. national interest. The talented will always find somewhere to land, whether that is in the U.S. or elsewhere is a different story.

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