One of the most important components of the U.S.-China rivalry for tech dominance is the global competition for talented scientists and engineers. Federal legislation currently being negotiated could help give the United States a competitive edge if an important provision makes it into the final package.
For months, Congress has been hard at work on legislation aimed at “[turbocharging] America’s scientific research and technological leadership, and [strengthening] America’s economic and national security.” Dubbed the America COMPETES Act in the House and the United States Innovation and Competition Act in the Senate, the overarching goal of these bills is to boost the United States’ global competitiveness. This package currently being conferenced could include up to $52 billion of subsidies for domestic semiconductor manufacturers, $45 billion for supply chain resiliency, and significant funding for scientific research and development. But tucked away in Section 80303 of the House-passed version is a provision that could have a major impact on how the United States attracts top talent from abroad.
Currently, employment-based (EB) immigration to the United States is statutorily limited to 140,000 EB visas per year split amongst five “preference” categories with some exceptions. Section 80303 would exclude some of the most in-demand talent for science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) industries fields from these limitations. It does so in two ways.
First, Section 80303 would remove the statutory limits on the number of people who may be issued a visa and seek lawful permanent resident (green card) status for aliens with advanced degrees in STEM fields. Anyone with a doctoral degree in a STEM field and anyone who holds a master's degree and “works in a critical industry” would be allowed to file a petition with the Department of Homeland Security to receive a work visa that could eventually qualify them for a green card. This provision also allows the spouses and children to accompany an individual granted entry under this system.
Second, Section 80303 would allow any individual “who is a bona fide student admitted to a program of study involving [STEM]” to obtain a visa “even if such alien intends to seek lawful permanent resident status.” In effect, this would exclude STEM students from the statutory limits.
For many STEM-heavy industries like frontier tech and national security, excluding top talent from the immigration caps could be a much-needed stimulus. Take artificial intelligence (AI) for example. In the past decade, China has rapidly emerged as a global leader in AI innovation. Meanwhile, the United States has lagged in this space. As the Congressionally-mandated National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence put it, “the human talent deficit is the government’s most conspicuous AI deficit and the single greatest inhibitor to buying, building, and fielding AI-enabled technologies.” The same is true for other frontier technologies like quantum computing and data analytics.
As a country of immigrants, one of the United States’ greatest advantages in the rivalry with China is our ability to attract top talent. According to the China Task Force Report produced by the House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans in 2020:
The U.S. has long relied on attracting foreign talent to fill STEM jobs, where the demand is greater than the domestic supply of highly skilled workers. As of 2017, over 40 percent of the U.S. doctoral-level workforce was foreign-born. In computer sciences, mathematics, and engineering, nearly 60 percent of PhD holders in the U.S. workforce are foreign-born … The U.S. was long the top destination for the best and brightest students in the world, but more countries than ever are now competing for this talent.
The report goes on to highlight the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “two-pronged approach for attracting STEM talent.” The first prong of the CCP’s approach is to “incentivize and coerce” foreign-educated Chinese nationals to return and work in China. The second prong is by expanding its work visas to include STEM industries.
While the United States has historically attracted many of the world’s best and brightest to study and work in America, the House Republican China Task Force warned that we “cannot afford to take for granted that [the United States] will remain the destination of choice for STEM students” and workers. If the United States is to remain globally competitive in technology and engineering, updating our immigration systems to meet the needs of critical industries should be a top priority.
While lifting the caps on immigration for top STEM talent is necessary to spur global competitiveness, it may not be sufficient. Improving the nation's ability to attract and retain foreign people with STEM expertise will also require improving how the federal government manages immigration and naturalization benefits.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency responsible for administering our immigration and naturalization system, has long-standing problems that could be amplified by Section 80303 if certain issues are not addressed. One of the largest obstacles to the efficacy of Section 80303 is the current backlog of green cards. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) wrote in 2020 that “almost 1 million lawfully present foreign workers and their family members have been approved for, and are waiting to receive, lawful permanent resident (LPR) status (a green card).” CRS further noted that the “employment-based backlog is projected to double by FY2030.”
The primary driver of this backlog is that the number of foreign workers entering the country every year exceeds the number of statutorily allowed green cards. This problem primarily impacts immigrants from countries that send a large number of workers to the United States every year. For example, “Indian nationals can expect to wait decades to receive a green card.” This backlog can serve as a competitive disadvantage when attracting top talent from abroad.
To address this challenge, Congress should consider raising the statutory limits on green cards and the country-based immigration limits to attract more talent from top countries like India. But statutory limits are not the only impediment to the effectiveness of Section 80303. USCIS’ technical capabilities present their own unique challenges that ought to be addressed. These technical challenges become particularly apparent as the world moved online during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since 2005, USCIS has worked towards digitalizing the immigration and naturalization processes with mixed results. When offices closed, USCIS was forced to rely on these digital processes. But, as the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security reported in December of 2021:
USCIS’ primary operational challenge [during COVID], however, was its continued reliance on paper files to process and deliver benefits. USCIS had limited capability to electronically process more than 80 types of benefits, which still required some manual workflows and paper files to complete cases. Recurring technology performance issues and equipment limitations further constrained USCIS employees’ productivity … These challenges further increased processing times and resulted in a backlog of 3.8 million cases as of May 2021. Although USCIS digitized key benefits in recent years, it must further eliminate manual workflows and paper file dependency to achieve its 5-year plan to improve benefit processing times.
As Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank wrote in their book, Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology, excerpted by Slate:
[USCIS] tried to design the [Electronic Immigration] system without interviewing the front-line government workers who would be using the system. The ELIS team had thoroughly documented business processes and data flows, but none of the developers really understood how immigration officers did their jobs … Reflecting on what could have been done to help get his arms around the responsibility of righting a technology project gone wrong, [former USCIS Director Léon Rodriguez] says he wishes he could have had something like a technology translator to lay out significant issues in nontechnical terms—a dedicated senior person to be his ELIS liaison, in the way government officials often have policy liaisons.
Increasing technical capacity and literacy at federal agencies like USCIS to properly build and implement digital systems should also be a priority for policymakers. Building a workable ELIS would benefit immigrants by streamlining the filing and approval process, reducing backlogs. What’s more, a fully digital system could result in significant cost savings for individuals, businesses, and even the federal government who are burdened by paper-based regulatory compliance.
There is no panacea to ensuring that the United States’ immigration system attracts and retains the best and brightest foreign talent. Yet, attracting talent has become an increasingly important factor in the growing rivalry between the United States and China for tech dominance. Without STEM talent, we have little hope of maintaining our global competitiveness in frontier tech. In the interest of boosting America’s global competitiveness, Congress should ensure that Section 80303 makes it into the final version of America COMPETES and then consider other necessary changes to the immigration system.
Luke Hogg is Policy Manager at Lincoln Network, focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy.