Jie He, an infectious disease researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin, is no stranger to accomplishment. In 2006, He, a Chinese native, immigrated to the United States to do a postdoctoral fellowship in infectious disease. After years of making headway researching viruses that cause respiratory tract infections in the lab, she was asked to remain as a full time medical researcher—an honor for any trainee in a competitive field like her own.
He is already, in many ways, making a major impact on her state. In 2009, she was part of a team that developed a test that confirmed the first case of pandemic flu infection in Wisconsin. This helped the state stave off an outbreak of the disease. Researchers have estimated a serious flu epidemic would have significant human and economic costs—resulting in the loss of more than 200,000 lives and as much as $166.5 billion in economic output nationally.
Researchers have estimated a serious flu epidemic would have significant human and economic costs—resulting in the loss of more than 200,000 lives and as much as $166.5 billion in economic output nationally.
He is just one of many immigrants, in fact, helping Wisconsin remain a leading innovator in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, or STEM, fields. In 2014, Wisconsin was home to almost 12,000 foreign-born STEM workers. And in 2011, more than 70 percent of patents awarded to the entire University of Wisconsin system had at least one inventor who was originally born in another country. Despite their importance to this midwestern state, however, many immigrant STEM students and researchers either struggle to remain in the country—or face enormously daunting immigration hurdles to do so.
He certainly knows what challenges the U.S. immigration system poses. While she was working on her swine flu research, she was in the country on a temporary visa for highly skilled immigrants. With young children and a husband, she hoped to settle more permanently in the country—and in the Milwaukee community that had come to feel like home. Despite the efforts of her immigration attorney, however, the process was a slow one: The wait for her permanent resident status stretched on for eight years. The waiting game kept He from progressing in her career, because higher positions required permanent residence status. For that same reason, it also limited her funding, which would have helped advance the research she was doing into topics important to her state.
The system also had a personal toll. While He waited for her permanent residency to come through, she was unable to fly home to visit family in China. Doing so would have required her to reapply for a visa—a process that can easily take four weeks. Such a wait could have jeopardized her job in the lab as well, which offered He two weeks of vacation per year. When He found out that her grandmother was dying, she couldn’t visit the woman who had helped raise her. “I wasn’t able to take care of [my grandmother] for even one day,” He says. “I was very sorry I wasn’t able to do that.” She also missed the opportunity to be a part of her nephew’s life—an opportunity she knows she won’t get back. “My nephew was three years old when I left,” she says. “Now he’s [practically] an adult. He’s 14 and taller than me.”