To Compete With China on Tech, America Needs to Fix Its Immigration System

Washington Must Make It Easier to Recruit and Retain Top Talent

When the U.S. Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act in August 2022, it committed $53 billion to fund semiconductor research and manufacturing in the United States. As a result of this legislation, advanced chip manufacturers have been racing to build new U.S. factories. Since then, however, it has quickly become apparent that fabrication capacity alone will not be enough to make the United States a semiconductor powerhouse. What the country lacks is not raw materials or capital. The main constraint is a shortage of talent.

According to current projections, U.S. semiconductor companies will have 300,000 unfilled vacancies for skilled engineers by 2030. Targeting, training, and recruiting hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens will be impossible in such a compressed time frame. The only way to meet this demand is to recruit many more skilled workers from abroad. On the face of it, this should not be a problem: the United States has long relied on its companies and universities to attract the world’s best and brightest. Brilliant engineers from all around the world helped me turn Google into a world-leading technology company. But this did not happen because of the U.S. immigration system. It happened in spite of it. For decades, Washington has failed to pass meaningful immigration reform. If the United States wants to remain the world leader in innovation, it can no longer afford to ignore the talent waiting beyond its borders.

As I wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, innovation power—the ability to invent, adopt, and adapt new technologies to advance national power—will determine the future of geopolitics. And this ability to innovate depends, above all, on the strength of a country’s talent pool. U.S. professional sports leagues understand this: basketball and baseball scouts scour the globe to find the best players for their teams. But when it comes to recruiting the world’s top AI scientists and semiconductor engineers, the U.S. immigration system has put up unnecessary barriers. Current restrictions are increasingly putting the United States behind countries with points-based immigration systems like Canada and the United Kingdom, which are aggressively courting advanced tech workers and engineers.

The United States is still the world’s most attractive country for immigrants. Its university system is the envy of the world and its companies lead the world in innovation. But if Washington wants to stay ahead and achieve the promise of the CHIPS and Science Act, it must act to remove the needless complexities to make its immigration system more transparent and create new pathways for the brightest minds to come to the United States.

While the United States’ dysfunctional system increasingly deters the world’s top scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs, other countries are proactively recruiting them. China is particularly active in doing so, with direction coming from the very top. In 2021, President Xi Jinping declared that “the competition of today’s world is a competition of human talent and education.” At his instruction, the nation, which suffers from an exodus of talent, began to spend serious money to woo back native-born STEM graduates. Today, Chinese research institutions offer some postdoctoral researchers three times the salaries they could make at a U.S. university. Skilled Chinese engineers and scientists who previously moved abroad to work are being offered powerful incentives to return home.

U.S. allies have significantly stepped up efforts to bring in the best talent, too. Last year, United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a scheme to target and attract the world’s top 100 young AI researchers. The United Kingdom now has a High Potential Individual visa program, which is specifically aimed at graduates of the world’s top universities. In 2015, Canada created an Express Entry system, which allows high-skilled foreign nationals to become permanent residents in only a year. The results are already showing: between 2016 and 2019 alone, the number of Indian STEM masters students studying in Canada rose by 182 percent. During the same period, the number of Indian students studying in the same fields in the United States dropped 38 percent.

To be able to compete in the decades to come, the U.S. economy needs to attract the high-skilled immigrants who will build the technologies of the future, from large language models to quantum computers. Many talented workers who would like to come to the United States are put off by its complex and restrictive immigration rules. These rules particularly affect foreign students, who currently make up over 70 percent of U.S. graduate students in computer science. International students who wish to remain and contribute to the U.S. economy upon graduation usually seek to do so by applying for an H-1B visa. But H-1B visas are allotted not on a candidate’s relative talent but through an arbitrary lottery that has a success rate as low as 11 percent. A majority of foreign U.S.-trained Ph.D. graduates in artificial intelligence who consider leaving the country cite its immigration system as a main reason. Although U.S. universities continue to train many of the most capable scientists and engineers in the world, it is other countries that are increasingly enjoying the benefits.

60 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Democrats supported more skilled immigration to the United States.
There is broad bipartisan support for common sense immigration reform. Yesterday, 70 experts and former national security officials published an open letter calling on the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party to attract and retain global STEM talent to maintain U.S. leadership in technology. Last year, in a poll conducted by the Economic Innovation Group Economic Innovation Group, 60 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Democrats supported more skilled immigration to the United States. Seventy-three percent of the U.S. public favor a visa allowing international graduates in STEM subjects to work in the United States. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have made proposals to increase U.S. competitiveness by attracting more high-skilled foreign workers. But these proposals have been blocked year after year. Last year, there was bipartisan support for making available additional green cards with shorter wait times for STEM Ph.D.’s. Yet ultimately this initiative was stripped from the final National Defense Authorization Act.

Still, there are a variety of ways to make targeted changes with the backing of both parties. Today, for example, even a physics or math Ph.D. from the United States’ best universities—exactly the type of person needed to spur innovation and scientific discovery—has no clear path toward obtaining residency in the country. Congress should begin to address this problem by creating a conditional green card for STEM Ph.D.’s, perhaps with an initial focus on U.S. partner countries. This visa would give recipients permanent residence for two to three years, with an option of extension upon review. There is precedent for creating such a special entry program: conditional green cards have been successfully used for investor visas, and the United States has, at various times, tailored visas toward nationals of allied countries. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the E-3 visa, which applies to specialist workers from Australia, and could be expanded to other nations. This new type of green card would make the immigration process for STEM Ph.D.’s more streamlined and predictable. It would also remove pressure on other visa categories with numerical limits and country caps, as well as allow green card holders to move freely between jobs. At the same time, this new green card should come with sensible restrictions, limiting eligibility to a recognized list of leading research institutions.

To win the global talent competition, the United States needs to not only retain but also attract global talent. As Harvard political scientist Graham Allison and I have argued, the U.S. government should make a concerted effort to identify and recruit top researchers from across the globe. A special green card for exceptional scientists would allow the United States to maintain its edge in technology and help it confront the great geopolitical challenges of the coming years.

In fact, the U.S. government already has a successful history of using such a strategy in the decades around World War II. In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States succeeded in attracting a whole generation of talent, including such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. The two left Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, respectively, before coming to the United States, where their research, along with that of other émigré scientists, was instrumental to the Manhattan Project. Today, Washington needs to do more to attract leading scientists from nonaligned or even hostile countries, even if doing so requires more extensive security screening. The United States missed a major opportunity last year when U.S. President Joe Biden was unable to persuade Congress to waive visa requirements for top Russian engineers and scientists who were seeking to escape President Vladimir Putin’s rule. The United States should also do more to attract Chinese scientists and innovators, who have been a huge boon to the U.S. economy. Since 2000, Chinese STEM Ph.D.’s have created startups valued at over $100 billion. If Washington wants innovators to start their businesses in the United States, rather than in China, it must be more welcoming to Chinese talent. Although much has been made in Washington of the security risks posed by a few foreign researchers who have been accused of intellectual property theft, far greater harm will be done to the country over the long term by keeping out entrepreneurial Chinese scientists.

Washington must also make it easier for the world’s top entrepreneurs to come to the United States. More than half of U.S. companies valued at over $1 billion were founded or co-founded by immigrants. But, unlike in Canada and Australia, there is no designated startup visa for entrepreneurs who want to found a business in the United States. Congress should resurrect an earlier version of the CHIPS and Science Act that would have created a new visa category for startup founders. And that is only the start. Several other visa classes should be created, including ones for foreign nationals of high aptitude who, in return for residency, agree to work for federal or state governments in areas which most need immigration. Similar to pathways to citizenship for those enrolling in the U.S. military, the United States should use new visas to draw exceptional talent into local government.

The power of the American dream has long allowed the United States to attract the best and the brightest.
There are already signs of progress. The State Department is planning to make it easier for millions of international professionals to renew their visas without having to travel abroad. The department should also relax requirements for the J-1 visa, which requires most holders to return to their home countries and stay there for at least two years before they can return to the United States.

The global contest for talent is too important to hold up these reforms for the sake of an elusive bipartisan immigration grand bargain. Hard though it will be, opening up more pathways for highly skilled workers to enter the United States will be key to preserving and promoting national competitiveness and national security. Without such changes, the promise of the CHIPS and Science Act will remain unfulfilled. The power of the American dream has long allowed the United States to attract the best and the brightest. Washington’s ability to field the best team for the coming geopolitical competition rests on this advantage. The United States cannot afford to lose it.

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