December 04, 2023

To Win the Tech Race, America Needs High-Skilled Immigration Reform

In recent weeks, Republican senators have insisted on stronger border security measures as a condition for passing urgent aid for Ukraine, Israel, and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Although there is virtue in limiting the agenda of a time-sensitive negotiation, focusing narrowly on the border misses the opportunity to address another way our broken immigration system hurts national security — the damage to America’s technology leadership.

America’s immigration system once propelled the nation’s tech edge; today, it’s become a self-inflicted wound.

Technology is a central front in the strategic competition between the U.S. and China. Beijing and Washington both understand that whichever nation leads in key emerging technologies could unlock decisive advantages — from an advanced AI that can supercharge battlefield decision-making to a quantum computer that can unlock every encrypted secret.

If the dangers of falling behind in the global tech race are obvious, so is the best way for America to stay ahead: high-skilled immigration reform.

This policy imperative reflects three hard truths:

First, America lacks the STEM workforce needed to unleash our tech potential. The country faces an estimated shortage of 1.4 million technicians, computer scientists, and engineers by 2030, and 90% of technology industry leaders say recruiting is a “major or moderate challenge.”

Second, America’s workforce pipeline cannot fill tech talent gaps in the short-term. Expanding domestic STEM talent takes years, even decades. One study found that the United States will require 300,000 more engineers than U.S. universities will graduate by 2030 to realize the full potential of the CHIPS and Science Act (“CHIPS Act”).

Third, comprehensive immigration reform is highly unlikely anytime soon. As technologies like AI advance at breakneck speed, holding a high-tech immigration fix hostage to a decades-long political stalemate risks irreversible damage to America’s tech edge, and by extension, our national security.

That damage is already apparent. Eighty two percent of defense companies struggle to find qualified STEM workers, and almost 70% of top AI employers in the United States cite visa and immigration problems as a barrier to filling critical vacancies. After the CHIPS Act invested $53 billion to restore advanced chip manufacturing in the United States, TSMC was forced to delay construction of its Arizona fab over a shortage of skilled workers.

In the past, America filled these shortages through immigration. And in turn, immigration made America a technology superpower. Over a quarter of America’s high-tech startups have immigrant co-founders, along with more than half of all startups in Silicon Valley. People born abroad are now 50% of workers in the defense industrial base with a STEM degree, 60% of PhDs for computer science, mathematics, and engineering, and nearly two-thirds of graduate students in AI and semiconductor-related programs.

America’s immigration system once propelled the nation’s tech edge; today, it’s become a self-inflicted wound. The last time Washington meaningfully reformed the employment-based immigration system was in 1990, when most Americans still watched VHS tapes.

Antiquated country caps — a relic from the 1960s — continue to strangle America’s access to high-tech talent and feed a backlog of over 1.4 million people for green cards. According to one study, visa holders from India applying for green cards have to wait 89 years before receiving one. Understandably, many give up. More than half of PhD students with AI expertise who leave America blame immigration issues. The result is an absurd status quo: American universities train the next generation of tech-savvy graduates, but the country’s broken immigration system exports many of them back to competitors — often, China.

Even friendly nations have seized on America’s broken immigration system as an opportunity. In July, Canada launched a new Tech Talent Strategy that includes 10,000 permits for U.S. immigrants with H-1B visas. Last year, the UK created a new High Potential Individual visa for graduates of top universities (many of them American), offering a decision on your application in two months or less.

Although America still boasts the world’s top tech talent, China is racing to close the gap. Beijing doubled funding for STEM education in the last decade, and some provinces now require elementary and middle schools to study AI. China already graduates more STEM doctoral students than the United States each year, and is projected to double the number of annual STEM graduates by 2025.

High-skilled immigration reform remains the single best card American can play to secure its technology leadership. It not only draws the best minds into U.S. classrooms, labs, and fabs; it also deprives competitors of top talent. Chinese and Indian nationals are almost half of all our STEM PhD graduates, with the overwhelming majority choosing to stay in the country upon graduation.

America should let them. Two recent policies suggest the Biden administration recognizes the vital importance of high-skilled workers to U.S. tech leadership. On October 23, the Department of Homeland Security announced steps to modernize the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers. A week later, President Biden’s sweeping Executive Order on AI sought to streamline visa appointments and applications for immigrants who plan to work in tech, among many other actions. Both steps reflect the administration’s attempt to make the most of a broken immigration system.

But in the end, only Congress can fix it. As members consider border policies as part of the funding package for Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza, they should consider a provision from the COMPETES Act to exempt immigrants with STEM PhDs from yearly green card caps. Beyond this, Congress could significantly raise the cap on H-1B visas for STEM workers, fund federal immigration agents to clear the visa backlog, and do away with per-country visa quotas entirely. Longer term, Congress should expand our domestic tech talent with reforms to make STEM pathways more available, appealing, and aligned with workforce trends.

Beijing would love nothing more than for America to keep frittering away its greatest advantage over a decades-long stalemate over immigration reform. This year Washington should surprise them — and secure America’s tech lead.

Read the full article from The Messenger.

  • Commentary
    • February 21, 2024
    Comments on the Advanced Computing/Supercomputing IFR: Export Control Strategy & Enforcement for AI Chips

    This comment represents the views of the authors alone and not those of their employers.1 The authors commend the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) for the Advanced Comput...

    By Erich Grunewald & Tim Fist

  • Reports
    • February 20, 2024
    Biotech Matters

    Operation Warp Speed showed the power of the U.S. government to direct national biotech capabilities around a shared goal—in this case, a novel vaccine. But there are many oth...

    By Hannah Kelley

  • Commentary
    • Silicon Angle
    • February 10, 2024
    The rising tide of sovereign AI

    Governments embarking on the strategy are thinking about AI as infrastructure rather than just a problem to solve with laws....

    By Pablo Chavez

  • Reports
    • February 7, 2024
    “DIU 3.0”

    Foreword By Richard Fontaine Rapid technological change touches virtually every aspect of life today. This includes defense and national security, and for good reason: To main...

    By Douglas A. Beck

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia