First I had to laugh. Then I had to cry.
I took part in commencement this year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of America's great science and engineering schools, so I had a front-row seat as the first grads to receive their diplomas came on stage, all of them
Ph.D. students. One by one the announcer read their names and each was handed their doctorate - in biotechnology, computing, physics and engineering - by the school's president, Shirley Ann Jackson.
The reason I had to laugh was because it seemed like every one of the newly minted Ph.D.'s at Rensselaer was foreign born. For a moment, as the foreign names kept coming - "Hong Lu, Xu Xie, Tao Yuan, Fu Tang" - I thought that the entire class of doctoral students in physics were going to be Chinese, until "Paul Shane Morrow" saved the day. It was such a caricature of what Jackson herself calls "the quiet crisis" in high-end science education in this country that you could only laugh.
Don't get me wrong. I'm proud that our country continues to build universities and a culture of learning that attract the world's best minds. My complaint - why I also wanted to cry - was that there wasn't someone from the Immigration and Naturalization Service standing next to Jackson stapling green cards to the diplomas of each of these foreign-born Ph.D.'s. I want them all to stay, become Americans and do their research and innovation here. If we can't educate enough of our own kids to compete at this level, we'd better make sure we can import someone else's, otherwise we will not maintain our standard of living.
It is pure idiocy that Congress will not open our borders - as wide as possible - to attract and keep the world's first-round intellectual draft choices in an age when everyone increasingly has the same innovation tools and the key differentiator is human talent. I'm serious. I think any foreign student who gets a Ph.D. in our country - in any subject - should be offered citizenship. I want them. The idea that we actually make it difficult for them to stay is crazy.
Compete America, a coalition of technology companies, is pleading with Congress to boost both the number of H-1B visas available to companies that want to bring in skilled foreign workers and the number of employment-based green cards given to high-tech foreign workers who want to stay here. Give them all they want! Not only do our companies need them now, because we're not training enough engineers, but they will, over time, start many more companies and create many more good jobs than they would possibly displace. Silicon Valley is living proof of that - and where innovation happens matters. It's still where the best jobs will be located.
Folks, we can't keep being stupid about these things. You can't have a world where foreign-born students dominate your science graduate schools, research labs, journal publications and can now more easily than ever go back to their home countries to start companies - without it eventually affecting our standard of living - especially when we're also slipping behind in high-speed Internet penetration per capita. The United States has fallen from fourth in the world in 2001 to 15th today.
Here's the sad truth: 9/11, and the failing Iraq war, have sucked up almost all the oxygen in this country - oxygen needed to discuss seriously education, health care, climate change and competitiveness, notes Garrett Graff, an editor at Washingtonian Magazine and author of the upcoming book "The First Campaign," which deals with this theme. So right now, it's mostly governors talking about these issues, noted Graff, but there is only so much they can do without Washington, D.C., being focused and leading.
Which is why we've got to bring our occupation of Iraq to an end in the quickest, least bad way possible - otherwise we are going to lose Iraq and the United States. It's coming down to that choice.
Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, can be reached at: New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.