Former national security leaders are urging Congress to ease immigration policy for foreign scientific talent

More than four dozen former national security leaders are urging Congress to exempt international advanced technical degrees from the green card limit in an attempt to retain U.S. leadership in science and technology, especially over China, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by Axios.

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

Context: Chinese competition laws passed by the House and Senate last year seek to inject money into the National Science Foundation and other federal research agencies. They also seek to encourage high-tech companies, especially semiconductor companies, to build plants in the United States.

  • The Democrats-led House of America COMPETES Act includes a provision exempting recipients of PhDs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) from abroad from the green card.
  • Exemption would be offered regardless of whether their degree is from an American 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 is happening: The Bipartisan Innovation Act conference committee is expected to begin this month to try to harmonize House and Senate laws.

  • Several Republican senators, including Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), said they were open to retaining the Green Card provision in the final bill.
  • The May 9 letter was 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.
  • Among the signatories are former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former Energy Minister Steve Chu and former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security Kari Bingen, and 46 others.

What they say: “American leadership in technology, the cornerstone of competitiveness, rests largely on our ability to harness domestic and international talent,” the letter said.

  • Maintaining a provision on the House of Representatives law or some version of it would remove “the self-imposed burden that immigration bottlenecks impose on American competitiveness,” the letter said.
  • “China is the most significant technological and geopolitical competitor our country has faced lately. With the world’s best STEM talents on its side, it will be very difficult for America to lose. Without it, it will be very difficult for America to win.”

Between the lines: “People realize that highly critical national security goals cannot be achieved unless international STEM talent can come and stay in the U.S.,” says Remco Zwetsloot, who studies STEM immigration and U.S.-China technology competitiveness at CSIS.

Two critical sectors currently dependent on STEM talents born abroad in the US:

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

In the production of semiconductors, both laws in Congress call for funding to encourage semiconductor production in the U.S., but bringing the industry back to the United States also depends on the ability to hire talent.

Big picture: Retaining rates among international recipients of STEM doctoral studies were high several years ago.

What to watch: Both laws also seek to address foreign influence in basic U.S. research, including coercion, deception, and intellectual property theft.

  • Some lawmakers have suggested that foreign students be barricaded in the study area or that people from certain countries be restricted from studying in the United States.
  • Concerns about the safety of the research are real, says Anja Manuel, a former State Department official and CEO of Aspen Strategy Group who signed the letter.
  • But she argues that a risk management approach can balance national security, competitiveness and the openness of the innovation system. “The worst thing we could do is shut down that international innovation system.”

Go deeper:

  • The headache with Immigration Tech doesn’t go away (Axios)

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