WASHINGTON - For her summer internship last year, 17-year-old Melis Nuray Anahtar built a tiny device that can isolate white blood cells and the DNA inside them 180 times faster than the traditional technique. This fall, as a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she plans to resume the project, in hopes the invention will lead to advances in burn and trauma treatment.
Anahtar's internship this summer, at Georgetown University Medical Center, is only slightly less ambitious. But she managed to take a quick break this week to help illustrate a seldom-recognized byproduct of U.S. immigration: the sterling achievements in math and science that children of foreign-born adults are contributing to the nation.
Her parents, both architects who were born in Turkey, came to the United States on a high-skill work visa in 1985, enticed by a job and the opportunities for their yet-to-be-born children.
Anahtar was spotlighted at a news conference this week by Stuart Anderson, a former federal immigration official who argues that tighter restrictions on U.S. visas, if continued, could threaten America's standing in math, science and technology.
Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan research group, released a study he conducted of America's premier math and science students. Anahtar, and two foreign-born students with her at the news conference, are Intel Science Talent Search finalists. In fact, children of immigrant families make up more than 60 percent of the finalists.
It's a figure Anderson says he was astonished to arrive at after interviewing the finalists and their parents. He went on to examine the backgrounds of high-achieving students in two other prestigious competitions: the U.S. Math Olympiad and the U.S. Physics Team. The percentages for children of immigrants in those events were 65 percent and 46 percent, respectively.
"American leadership in science and technology," Anderson said in unveiling his study, "is very much tied to our openness to immigration."
Anderson says he is deeply concerned that tougher obstacles for would-be immigrants could have the unintended effect of reducing the number of elite math and science students in America, with serious consequences for such areas as engineering and computer science.
Among the 40 Intel Science finalists, nine had parents who first came to the United States on a student visa; 18 had parents who held high-skill jobs on a work visa before obtaining permanent residency.
But after Sept. 11 and with the economy slowing in recent years, the government made both visas harder to get. Perhaps as a result, fewer people are seeking student visas.
The international student offices at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland at College Park reported complaints from students who had trouble passing security checks. Both have seen a sharp decline in graduate school applications from foreign students.
Maryland received 37 percent fewer foreign applications for the coming year, though it admitted the same number of students. Valerie Woolston, director of the school's International Education Services, says she fears that applications will continue to fall because the non-refundable fees charged to all foreign applicants will double, to $200.
"That's really tough," Woolston said. "In a place like China or Africa, that's horrible."
A spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said U.S. security warrants the increased hassle and cost for foreign students, who must await background checks before receiving travel documents.
"We'll do nothing to shortcut the process and potentially jeopardize the United States' security," said the spokesman, Chris Bentley. "We have a long tradition of openness. ... In opening that door, we must make sure we don't allow someone to take advantage of our openness to do harm."
High-skill work visas, on the other hand, have less to do with homeland security and much to do with the economy. Such "H-1B" visas, intended for foreign workers who can perform a high-skill American job that cannot be carried out by a qualified American worker, recently became scarce.
For many years, the cap on those visas was 65,000 a year. But in the technology boom of the late 1990s, Congress raised the cap to 115,000 and then 195,000. The increase had a sunset clause, which arrived last year, bumping the cap back down to 65,000. Some companies now fear a shortage of highly skilled workers.
"It's having a very large adverse impact on some companies," said Lynn Shotwell, director of governmental relations for the American Council for International Personnel, which represents global companies based in America. "I've heard from some companies that because of the cap, they're looking for different ways to fill these jobs. Do they move these jobs overseas?"
Advocates for U.S. workers argue that companies should look to Americans first. The economy has weakened since the cap was first raised, and joblessness is rising in technology fields, said Roy Beck, director of NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation, which backs tighter immigration rules.
Beck says the skilled work visa program is often abused, with visas handed out to such low-skilled workers as pizza shop owners and no protection built in to ensure that American workers get first shot at a job.
Still, Beck applauded the Intel winners and added, "The parents of those students were probably cream of the crop. Most people who despise the H-1B program would say there's probably room for 10,000 [high-skilled] people who truly add something, and you don't want to keep them out."
Just as their parents contribute to American science and tech industries, many of the children of these immigrant families end up raising the levels of student performance in math and science in the United States. American students, as a whole, consistently rank below students in many other developed countries in math and science.
The Intel winners say their parents encouraged them to excel, particularly in math and science.
"If you're an author, half the people will love what you write and half of them will hate it," Anahtar noted. "When you discover a gene, you discover a gene, and no one can say you didn't."
Anahtar, who just graduated from the magnet program in science, math and computer science at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, said she sees the same drive in her friends from immigrant families.
"A lot of the most talented students at our school are immigrants," Anahtar said. "The parents of my friends did math and science in their countries. The kids learned from their parents and saw math and science is objective, and it's easy to excel once you have a passion for it."