May 9, 2022 - Technology

Exclusive: Congress urged to ease immigration for foreign science talent

A technician pushes a cart of semiconductor wafers at the Applied Materials Inc. facility in Santa Clara, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2016.
A technician pushes a cart of semiconductor wafers at the Applied Materials Inc. facility in Santa Clara, Calif., last October. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

More than four dozen former national security leaders are calling on Congress to exempt international advanced technical degree holders from green card caps in a bid to maintain U.S. science and tech leadership, especially over China, according to a copy of a letter viewed by Axios.

Why it matters: The breadth of signatories suggests widespread concern about China's rise could bolster bipartisan support for change in one corner of the otherwise politically charged issue of immigration policy.

Context: China competition bills passed in the last year by the House and Senate seek to pour money into the National Science Foundation and other federal research agencies. They also seek to incentivize high-tech companies, especially those that manufacture semiconductors, to build facilities in the U.S.

  • The America COMPETES Act passed by the Democrat-led House includes a provision to exempt foreign-born science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) doctoral degree recipients from green card caps.
  • The exemption would be offered whether their degree is from a U.S. or foreign institution.
  • Current U.S. immigration law limits the number of green cards issued per country, and people from populous countries like India and China are disproportionately affected.

What's happening: The Bipartisan Innovation Act Conference Committee is expected to begin this month to try to reconcile the House and Senate bills.

  • Several Republican senators, including Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) have said they're open to keeping the green card provision in final legislation.
  • The letter, dated May 9, is addressed to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the conference committee.
  • Signatories include former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Energy Steve Chu, former deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security Kari Bingen and 46 others.

What they're saying: "American leadership in technology, a cornerstone of competitiveness, rests in large part on our ability to leverage domestic and international talent," the letter states.

  • Keeping the House bill provision or some version of it would remove "the self-inflicted drag that immigration bottlenecks impose on American competitiveness," the letter says.
  • "China is the most significant technological and geopolitical competitor our country has faced in recent times. With the world’s best STEM talent on its side, it will be very hard for America to lose. Without it, it will be very hard for America to win."

Between the lines: "People are recognizing very critical national security goals can’t be achieved unless international STEM talent has a way to come and stay in the U.S.," says Remco Zwetsloot, who researches STEM immigration and U.S.-China technological competitiveness at CSIS.

Two critical sectors currently hinge on foreign-born STEM talent in the U.S.:

In the defense industrial-base sector, which includes aerospace and weapons development for the U.S. military, half of the advanced STEM degree holders are foreign-born, according to the Institute for Progress.

In semiconductor manufacturing, both bills in Congress call for funding to boost semiconductor production in the U.S. but bringing the industry back to the United States also depends on being able to hire talent.

The big picture: The stay rates among international STEM doctoral degree recipients were high a few years ago.

What to watch: Both bills also try to address foreign influence in U.S. fundamental research, including coercion, deception and theft of intellectual property.

  • Some lawmakers have proposed walling off areas of research from foreign students or restricting people from particular countries from studying in the U.S.
  • Research security concerns are real, says Anja Manuel, a former state department official and executive director of the Aspen Strategy Group who signed the letter.
  • But she argues a risk management approach can balance national security, competitiveness and the openness of the innovation system. "The worst thing we could do is close down that international innovation system."

Go deeper:

  • Tech's immigration headache isn't going away (Axios)
Go deeper