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Reforming Our High-Skill Immigration System Is a National Security Imperative

September 02, 2021 (4 min read)

C. Stewart Verdery, Jr., Elaine K. Dezenski, Sept. 1, 2021

"A significant part of the story behind the United States’ incredible Covid-19 vaccination development success is an immigration story. Look back to the founding of Pfizer and Moderna, and you find both were founded by immigrants. Look at their CEOs today and both are immigrants. Key scientists involved in the vaccine’s development? Immigrants.

It should come as no surprise that immigrants are at the forefront of our nation’s most critical innovations, given that first- and second-generation immigrants founded roughly 45 percent of the high-tech companies on the 2019 Fortune 500 list.

But there’s another, often overlooked benefit the United States gains by welcoming, educating, employing, and investing in high-skilled immigrants: national security. The contributions of these immigrants strengthen the U.S. economy, contribute to our global influence and help export American values such as transparency and intellectual property protections. Our colleagues on the Council on National Security and Immigration — a coalition of national security leaders advocating for immigration reforms that are critical to our national security — understand that a strong economy isn’t just a major pillar of domestic stability — it allows us to invest in the intelligence and new technologies that keep a country safe.

However, we cannot assume that the United States will always benefit from high-skilled immigration —from both an economic and a national security perspective — if we do not clear the path for the best and brightest around the globe to choose us in an increasingly competitive world. Not every business is as famous as our professional sports leagues, but can you imagine if the Milwaukee Bucks couldn’t obtain an employment visa for Giannis Antetokounmpo or if Fernando Tatis Jr. could only play shortstop in the Dominican Republic? We need all-stars in every industry — and especially in transformational sectors like quantum computing, renewable energy, and biotechnologies, to name a few.

The global demographics are shifting. If the United States is going to remain competitive with nations like China, which is rising to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy by 2028, we must attract the brightest foreign students to learn at our universities — and create an environment that allows them to stay and build the next great company here. China’s rapid economic growth and increasing global influence is both an economic and national security threat to the United States, and President Joe Biden and Congress must take smart action to mitigate the threat. A smart place to start is by reforming the nation’s high-skilled immigration system.

As Congress considers competing priorities throughout the budget reconciliation process, lawmakers can address the need for highly skilled immigrants by increasing the number of visas available for STEM immigrants and compressing the wait times for approval. Of course, all immigrants need to be screened for potential security risks. We need not open ourselves to further exploitation of our intellectual property or rogue foreign interests. But we also must allow for legitimate students to come. The Washington Post recently reported that there are more than 100,000 unused employment-based green card slots set to expire at the end of September. That’s a staggering number, representing a huge loss in knowledge and skill at a time when our country’s economy is still vulnerable and recovering from the pandemic. The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies went beyond the southern border and included denying visas to high-skilled immigrants companies wanted to employ, and the pandemic has led to a dramatic 43 percent drop in international students enrolling in U.S. universities. The Biden administration and Congress must work together to address the backlog with urgency.

Members of Congress should also provide temporary legal status to immigrants in STEM fields who might be impacted by caps on employment-based green cards. They should also consider passing a new startup visa for international entrepreneurs. Critically, Congress must also identify new paths for international students to stay in the United States after graduation so that our economy benefits from their knowledge gained here.

If the United States is going to maintain economic, military and social advantages, it must create a 21st-century immigration system that provides opportunities for high-tech immigrant workers who are eager to make America stronger. Passing these reforms and acting to clear the existing backlog could mean granting entry to that scientist or innovative leader who will develop the next life-saving vaccine or build the next great American company at the forefront of the next great technological innovation. It could be the difference between allowing China to eclipse the United States on the international stage or continuing our role as an innovative leader. Today, it could mean a faster and more durable economic recovery. It’s time for Congress to act — for the sake of today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities." 

C. Stewart Verdery, Jr. is a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration and previously served as assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration.

Elaine K. Dezenski is a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration, as well as the chief growth officer at Blank Slate Technologies and a senior adviser at the Center on Economic and Financial Power.