In 2022, a country’s national security and economic vitality center around talent. Leadership in China, Russia and other countries have taken steps to help ensure their nations have the scientists and engineers needed in the 21st century. Analysts say the United States carries natural advantages in the global competition for talent but risks falling behind because it is too difficult for talented foreign-born individuals to stay or immigrate to America. Congress has the opportunity to change that in legislation headed to a House-Senate conference committee.
Background: On March 30, 2022, “The House by unanimous consent disagreed to the Senate amendment to H.R. 4521—America COMPETES Act of 2022 and requested a conference with the Senate,” reported the House Press Gallery. “The Chair said that appointment of conferees on H.R. 4521 would be made at a later time.”
On February 4, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the America COMPETES Act 222 to 210, but it garnered only one Republican vote. In June 2021, the Senate passed a similar bill that focused on support for producing more semiconductors in the United States and grants for research and manufacturing in different parts of the country. The House bill is approximately 3,000 pages but contains provisions unique from the Senate bill, including a few changes to immigration law to help the U.S. economy retain foreign-born scientists and engineers.
First, the bill creates an exemption from annual green card limits and backlogs for foreign nationals with a Ph.D. in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. An additional exemption from green card limits includes individuals with a master’s degree “in a critical industry,” such as semiconductors.
Second, the bill creates a temporary visa for qualifying foreign-born entrepreneurs— from Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s (D-CA) LIKE Act—and includes a way for entrepreneurs to earn lawful permanent residence “if the start-up entity meets certain additional benchmarks.” Innovations are often realized through entrepreneurship, with immigrant examples including Zoom (video conferencing), Moderna (biomedical research) and Tesla (electric vehicles).
Third, measures in the bill fund scholarships for U.S. students in STEM fields by charging $1,000 supplemental fees for those receiving a green card or status under the legislation. The bill also includes small measures that would make it easier to retain health care professionals and attract international students.
Russia: Following the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has tried to retain its information technology (IT) and scientific talent since it represents a source of wealth creation and national security. “Already, Russian talent is rushing for the exits, in what might represent the seventh great wave of Russian emigration over the past century,” writes the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell. “An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 IT specialists alone have recently left, according to a Russian technology trade group, which predicts another 100,000 might leave by the end of April. Others in the outbound stampede include entrepreneurs, researchers and artists. . . The Russian government hasn’t yet blocked emigration, but it is trying to slow the flow by interrogating those who leave or offering enticements to tech workers who stay.” Rampell recommends using provisions in the House bill to “Drain Putin’s Brains.”
A good example of the type of person who would represent America’s gain (but Russia’s loss) is Gleb Yushin. Yushin graduated with a B.A. in physics from the Polytechnic Institute in Saint Petersburg, Russia and came to America as an international student. He earned a Ph.D. in materials science from North Carolina State University. Yushin’s research helped lead to battery materials now used to improve energy storage for many products. He became a co-founder of Sila Nanotechnologies, a company valued today at more than $3 billion. He teaches the next generation of students in America as an engineering and materials professor at Georgia Tech.
China: Like Russia, China recognizes how valuable high-tech talent is to a nation. “Chinese leaders understand the extent to which the United States benefits from international talent inflows,” writes Remco Zwetsloot in a report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They therefore celebrate America’s flawed immigration system and fear reforms that would improve U.S. talent attraction and retention. Commenting on U.S. retention of Chinese STEM students, the head of the CCP’s Central Talent Work Coordination Group has complained that ‘the number of top talents lost in China ranks first in the world.’” Zwetsloot points out, “The deputy editor of China Daily USA, a government newspaper, said that expansion of the U.S. employment-based immigration system ‘would pose a huge challenge for China, which has been making great efforts to attract and retain talent.’”
The United States: In its Final Report, presented at a Congressional hearing, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (AI) recommended changes to immigration law as one of the best ways for the United States to address challenges from China and other countries. In a summary of “Win the global talent competition,” the report states: “The United States risks losing the global competition for scarce AI expertise if it does not cultivate more potential talent at home and recruit and retain more existing talent from abroad.”
The last few years have shown it is challenging to predict which innovations will become vital. Katalin Karikó produced the underlying research breakthrough that made messenger RNA possible for vaccines to combat Covid-19. She earned her Ph.D. in Hungary but spent years in America on an uncertain career path, first as a postdoctoral researcher, before her work became recognized as groundbreaking. Approximately 56% of postdoctoral researchers work on temporary visas, with many in biological sciences, medical sciences, engineering and research and development.
Assimilating the talents of immigrant scientists and engineers has reaped great dividends for America for decades. “A number of the earliest U.S. winners of the Nobel Prize in physics were Jewish scientists who fled Europe after the rise of Hitler and Mussolini,” noted a National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) analysis. “These scientists were crucial in America becoming the first nation to develop the atomic bomb.
“In 1954 the Atomic Energy Act established an award to recognize scientific achievements in atomic energy. The first winner of the award was the Italian-born Enrico Fermi. After his death, the award became known as the Enrico Fermi Award, and five of the first 8 winners were immigrants. Four of the nuclear scientists who came to the United States from Europe in the 1930s and later received a Nobel Prize for physics were Felix Bloch (1952), born in Switzerland, Emilio Segre (1959), born in Italy, Maria Mayer (1963), born in Poland, and Eugene Wigner (1963), born in Hungary.”
Today, the United States is losing top talent. “The number of international students from India studying at Canadian colleges and universities increased 182% between 2016 and 2019 while at the same time, the enrollment of Indian students in master’s level science and engineering programs at U.S. universities fell almost 40%,” according to a recent NFAP analysis. “Indian student enrollment at Canadian colleges and universities increased nearly 300% between the 2015-16 and 2019-20 academic years.”
Although international students in Canada can gain permanent residence within one or two years, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates it could take up to 195 years for Indian immigrants to get a green card in America in the employment-based second preference (EB-2). Canada has no per-country limit or low annual limits for employment-based immigrants as in the United States.
Canada is benefiting from Indian talent diverting from U.S. universities, notes Toronto-based immigration lawyer Peter Rekai. He cites the inability of Indian scientists and engineers to find a “reliable route to U.S. permanent residence” and the ease of doing so in Canada.
A House-Senate conference committee will determine whether America continues with the status quo or takes steps to enhance national security and make U.S. companies more competitive.