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High-skilled immigration is a national security issue

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Emerging Tech Horizons: Highly Skilled Migrants Are a National Security Problem

August 19, 2022

Dr. Mark J. Lewis and Dibiansh Kaushik


One of the great strengths of the American science and engineering enterprise is that the best minds from around the world come to our shores, attracted by the opportunity and spirit of innovation that characterizes free societies.

Some of the front-line brains in the history of defense science and technology have come from foreign countries, and their contributions to national security are unquestionable.

This tradition continues today. Of the 50 most promising artificial intelligence startups that Forbes recently identified, two-thirds had at least one immigrant founder, and about three-quarters of them first entered the United States on student visas. This is the person who came to

In a global economy, the ability to attract and retain top talent is critical to a nation’s competitiveness. Given that the United States has only about 4% of the world’s population, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of smart people in other parts of the world who can serve their country.

Universities in the United States attract more international students than any other country, but the outdated and cumbersome immigration system keeps students from studying abroad after graduation. Limited ability to maintain that talent.

The US immigration system has not kept pace with changing economic and national security needs. Due to the limited number of visas available and a slow-moving bureaucracy, it can take years or decades for highly skilled immigrants to obtain permanent residency (“green cards”). There are cases.

Meanwhile, with the onshoring of key industries, the U.S. defense industrial base is facing acute shortages of highly skilled workers in key areas, with more than 80% of defense companies lacking qualified scientific, technical , engineering and mathematics workers are reported to be difficult to find. Given this workforce gap, the need for highly skilled foreign talent is particularly acute.

To be able to develop and maintain complex systems, the Department of Defense and the companies that support it need workers with advanced technical education and skills.

As Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks put it, “talent is essential” in defense. But the immigration system hinders the ability of hiring managers to access a large portion of the strong technical talent pool created by U.S. universities: foreign-born U.S. degree holders.

International students make up approximately 40% of STEM PhDs awarded by US institutions, including more than 60% of PhDs in computer science. But rather than benefit fully from this segment of the workforce generated by U.S. colleges and universities, caps and delays in providing green cards will force these talented candidates to return home. In some cases, even talented immigrants already working in the United States are forced to leave the country when their visas expire without a green card.

In one survey, more than half of AI PhDs who left the United States cited immigration as the top reason for leaving the United States.

Worse, when STEM candidates leave the country, they risk applying their skills to support foreign or potentially hostile defense operations. Given that the Department of Defense funds much of these student doctoral studies, either directly or through grants to faculty researchers, it is important to train top talent at U.S. institutions and then send them abroad. Forcing them to leave means that US investments are reinforcing their opponents.

Other countries recognize that talent acquisition and retention is a strategic imperative and have established strong foreign STEM talent procurement programs. Meanwhile, in the United States, reform remains elusive. Legislators recently engaged in serious negotiations on STEM-related immigration reform as part of negotiations for CHIPS and the Science Act, but failed to agree on final provisions. Despite this setback, bipartisan support for STEM immigration reform remains strong.

Congress should continue to pursue measures to support the immigration of advanced STEM degree holders, especially U.S. college graduates. Additionally, consideration should be given to streamlining the process of ensuring expert access to curated information as needed to contribute to the nation’s mission.

Knowing that these are controversial changes, it might be best to start with limited pilots in emerging national security tech areas such as AI and quantum science.

Some have raised legitimate concerns that bad actors could abuse such reforms for purposes of espionage and intellectual property theft. But given the self-harm caused by shutting the gates down completely, I would like to encourage those who genuinely want to contribute to the U.S. system while keeping out those who abuse the openness and freedoms of the United States. The path that creates opportunities is the more rational path.

This means immigration reform must go hand in hand with improved institutional capacity for effective review, enforcement and prosecution of malicious activity.

To strengthen its position as a global leader in technology and innovation and to counter China’s growing influence, the country must ensure that the world’s best minds compete for us. Hmm. When the smartest people in the world choose to go somewhere, we really lose our competitive edge.

Dr. Mark Lewis is Director of the Emerging Technologies Institute. Divyansh Kaushik is a Carnegie doctoral student at Mellon University and a Science and Technology Fellow of the Federation of American Scientists.

topic: Global defense market, science and technology