As the debate over immigrants goes on, we are losing sight of one important fact: The U.S. is no longer the only land of opportunity. If we don’t want the immigrants who fueled our innovation and economic growth, they now have options elsewhere. Immigrants are returning home in greater numbers. And new research shows they are returning to enjoy a better quality of life, better career prospects, and the comfort of being close to family and friends.

Research indicates that a crisis was brewing because of the ever-growing immigration backlog. At the end of 2006, more than 1 million skilled professionals (engineers, scientists, doctors, researchers) and their families were in line for a yearly allotment of only 120,000 permanent resident visas. The wait time for some people ran longer than 10 years. In the meantime, these workers are trapped in “immigration limbo.” If they change jobs or even take a promotion, they risk being pushed to the back of the waiting line. It was predicted that skilled foreign workers would increasingly get fed up and return to countries like India and China where the economies are booming, and it’s now happening.

Contrary to the anti-immigration noises that came from the previous president’s administration, immigrants are critical to the United States’ long-term economic health. Despite the fact that they constitute only 12% of the U.S. population, immigrants have started 52% of Silicon Valley’s technology companies and contributed more than 25% of our global patents. They make up 24% of the U.S. science and engineering workforce holding bachelor degrees and 47% of science and engineering workers who have PhDs. Imagine that — 47% of the PhDs in science and engineering in the U.S. are immigrants. Immigrants founded or co-founded firms that you’ve heard of such as Google, Intel, eBay, and Yahoo!.

No government agency tracks the numbers on immigrants who gave up or returned but human resources directors in India and China say that what was a trickle of returnees a decade ago had become a flood. Job applications from the U.S. have increased tenfold over the last few years. And it’s not just new immigrants who are returning. 30% are immigrants who have permanent residency or are U.S. citizens.

Besides the visa problems and now the economic crisis, returnees are saying that their reasons for returning include better opportunities back home, better conditions for entrepreneurs and for launching businesses, and better family values in places like India and China.