Former national security leaders urge Congress to ease immigration policy for foreign science talent

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 US 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 seeking 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 US

  • 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 US or foreign institution.
  • Current US 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 and former Deputy Under Secretary 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 a 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 imposes 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. .”

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 US,” says Remco Zwetsloot, who researches STEM immigration and US-China technological competitiveness at CSIS.

Two critical sectors currently hinge on foreign-born STEM talent in the US:

In the defense industrial-base sector, Which includes aerospace and weapons development for the US 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 US but bringing the industry back to the United States also depends on being able to hire talent.

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