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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

AI experts are pushing the U.S. to ease immigration policies, arguing that the country is hobbling itself in a critical geopolitical race in which American dominance is slipping.

The big picture: Two of the Trump administration's major policy goals seem at cross purposes. Clamping down on immigrants and visitors could hamstring AI development in the U.S., which the White House says is a top priority.

Why it matters: The U.S. has long been the clear leader in AI research, but in recent years China and Europe have made vast strides toward overtaking it. Falling behind could have major economic and military repercussions.

  • The majority of AI talent in the U.S. is foreign-born, according to an analysis of submissions to NeurIPS, the top AI conference. "American companies have benefited tremendously from their own ability to attract international talent," says Joy Dantong Ma, the Paulson Institute researcher behind that study.
  • Now, tightening quotas and immigration rules can keep AI experts from coming to the U.S. to work, study or even present at conferences.
  • If current trends continue, "there will be a drain of talent returning to India and China," says Dick Burke, CEO of Envoy Global, a company that advises U.S. businesses on employment visas.

"Tightening immigration policies is inconsistent with wanting to lead in AI," says Remco Zwetsloot, a research fellow at the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

What's happening: It's already becoming harder for businesses and academia to invite the best researchers across borders.

  • In 2015, the U.S. government denied 6% of employment-based visa claims; this year, it is on track to deny nearly a third, according to an analysis from the nonprofit National Foundation for American Policy.
  • In a 2019 survey from Envoy, nearly half of 400 American HR departments polled said getting employment visas has gotten more difficult in the past 5 years.
  • And it's not only the U.S.: More than 100 AI researchers, many from African countries, were denied visas to Canada for last year's NeurIPS conference.

Driving the news: The Partnership on AI (PAI) — a group of tech companies, universities and nonprofits — published a paper this week calling for looser immigration rules and easier-to-obtain visas for short visits.

  • When the process is complex and costly, only the biggest companies can afford to attract foreign experts, the report says. That disadvantages startups and nonprofits without the resources to navigate the system.
  • What's more, employing engineers and designers with varied backgrounds can help ward off potentially disastrous mistakes like biased AI systems.

"It is worrying to us that it's not possible to get the right people in the room," says Lisa Dyer, PAI's director of policy.

What they're saying: By way of comment, the White House pointed to an administration proposal to increase the percentage of visas issued for employment by reducing family and humanitarian visas.

The bottom line: Restricting immigration has become the drumbeat of the Trump presidency and reelection campaign. The tech industry's needs are unlikely to outweigh the politics here.

Go deeper

House passes $1.9 trillion COVID relief package

Photo: Screenshot via C-SPAN

The House approved President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief package on a 219-212 vote early Saturday morning, sending it to the Senate for a possible rewrite before it gets to Biden's desk.

The big picture: The vote was a critical first step for the package, which includes $1,400 cash payments for many Americans, a national vaccination program, ramped-up COVID testing and contact tracing, state and local funding and money to help schools reopen.

8 hours ago - Health

Biden says it's "not the time to relax" after touring vaccination site

President Biden speaking after visiting a FEMA Covid-19 vaccination facility in Houston on Feb. 26. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden said Friday that "it's not the time to relax" coronavirus mitigation efforts and warned that the number of cases and hospitalizations could rise again as new variants of the virus emerge.

Why it matters: Biden, who made the remarks after touring a vaccination site in Houston, echoed CDC director Rochelle Walensky, who said earlier on Friday that while the U.S. has seen a recent drop in cases and hospitalizations, "these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic."

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: Most COVID-19 survivors can weather risk of reinfection, study says — "Twindemic" averted as flu reports plummet amid coronavirus crisis
  2. Vaccine: FDA advisory panel endorses J&J COVID vaccine for emergency use — About 20% of U.S. adults have received first vaccine dose, White House says — New data reignites the debate over coronavirus vaccine strategy.
  3. Economy: What's really going on with the labor market.
  4. Local: All adult Minnesotans will likely be eligible for COVID-19 vaccine by summer — Another wealthy Florida community receives special access to COVID-19 vaccine.
  5. Sports: Poll weighs impact of athlete vaccination.