Emerging Technology Horizons: High Skills Immigration a National Security Issue
One of the great strengths of America’s science and engineering enterprise has been that the best and brightest minds from around the world come to our shores, attracted by the opportunities and spirit of innovation that are the hallmarks of a free society.
Some of the foremost minds in the history of defense science and technology have come from foreign lands, and their contributions to national security are indisputable.
This tradition continues today. Of the 50 most promising artificial intelligence startup companies identified recently by Forbes, two-thirds had at least one immigrant founder — roughly three-quarters of whom first came to the United States on student visas.
In a global economy, the ability to attract and retain that top talent is critical for a nation’s competitiveness. Given that the United States accounts for only about 4 percent of the world’s population, it stands to reason that there are many smart people in other parts of the world who can contribute to the nation.
Though we are still the destination of choice for foreign nationals seeking higher education — U.S. universities attract more international students than any other nation — an outdated and cumbersome immigration system limits the ability to retain that talent after graduation.
The U.S. immigration system has not kept pace with the changing needs of the economy and national security. Due to a limited number of available visas and slow-moving bureaucracy, it can take years or decades for highly skilled immigrants to obtain permanent resident status — a “green card.”
Meanwhile, as we push to onshore key industries, the U.S. defense industrial base faces a critical shortage of high-skilled labor in key areas, with more than 80 percent of defense companies reporting difficulty in finding qualified science, technology, engineering and math workers. Given this workforce gap, the need for high-skilled foreign talent is particularly acute.
To be able to develop and maintain complex systems, the Defense Department and the companies that support it, are in need of workers with advanced technical education and skills.
As Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said, “talent is vital” to national defense. However, the immigration system inhibits hiring managers’ ability to access a large chunk of the robust technical talent pool created by U.S. universities, namely foreign-born U.S. degree recipients.
International students account for roughly 40 percent of STEM PhDs awarded by U.S. institutions, including more than 60 percent of PhDs in computer science. Yet rather than fully benefitting from this segment of the workforce being produced by U.S. colleges and universities, caps and delays in providing green cards often force these talented candidates to return home. In some cases, even talented immigrants already working in the United States are forced to leave when their visas expire without a green card.
In one study, more than half of PhD recipients in the field of artificial intelligence who left the United States cited immigration challenges as their biggest reason for leaving.
To make matters worse, when STEM candidates leave the country, there is a risk that they will apply their skills in support of foreign, and potentially adversarial, defense activities. Given that the Defense Department funds many of these students’ doctoral studies either directly or through grants to faculty researchers, training top talent at U.S. institutions and then forcing them to leave the country effectively means U.S. investments are strengthening adversaries.
Other nations recognize that talent acquisition and retention is a strategic imperative and have established robust 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 the negotiations for the CHIPS and Science Act but were unable to agree on a final provision. Despite this setback, bipartisan support for STEM talent immigration reform remains strong.
Congress must continue to pursue measures that support immigration for advanced STEM degree holders, especially for graduates of U.S. universities, and even consider streamlining the processes that allow experts access to controlled information as needed to contribute to national missions.
Understanding that these are changes that will be controversial, it may be best to initiate them in limited pilots — possibly in national security emerging technology areas such as AI or quantum science.
Some will raise legitimate concerns that bad actors might exploit such reforms for purposes of espionage or intellectual property theft. However, given the self-inflicted wounds caused by closing the gates entirely, the more reasoned path is one that creates opportunities for those who genuinely wish to contribute to the U.S. system, while weeding out those who would misuse our openness and freedoms.
This means that, alongside immigration reform, we must also improve institutional capacity for effective vetting, enforcement and prosecution of nefarious activity.
To fortify its standing as a global leader in technology and innovation, as well as counter the growing influence of China, the nation must ensure that we have the best minds in the world competing for us. If we ever get to the point where the world’s smartest choose to go elsewhere, we will have truly lost our competitive edge.
Dr. Mark Lewis is the director of the Emerging Technologies Institute. Divyansh Kaushik is a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University and a science and technology fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.