Congress’ competitiveness legislation should address immigration

Written by The Frontier Post

John P. Bailey

For the first time in over a decade, Congress is considering legislation to strengthen U.S. leadership in science and innovation by bolstering domestic research and development (R&D) and manufacturing capabilities to build supply chain resilience and reduce dependence on China. Congress should also use this opportunity to pass complementary immigration reforms that will allow the U.S. to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Immigrants have played an important role in strengthening our nation’s scientific and technological leadership. Immigrants comprise over 40 percent of STEM PhD graduates, have been awarded 39 percent of the United States’ Nobel Prizes in science, and produce 28 percent of the nation’s patents. Immigrants helped produce as much as 30 percent of the nation’s aggregate innovation from 1976 to 2012. Tech industry giants such as Amazon, Apple, and Google were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. And more recently, immigrants played key roles in nearly all facets of developing COVID-19 vaccines including chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui.

Second, the restrictive and complicated awarding process for visas and green cards strengthens China’s competitiveness while weakening ours. American higher education institutions educate the best and brightest from China, but instead of welcoming these graduates and putting them to work for American companies, our immigration system sends them back home where they build China’s innovation capabilities.

Third, the sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine has led to a surge of technology talent fleeing the country. WIRED reports that as many as 70,000 tech workers have fled Russia, and 70,000 to 100,000 more could leave in April. We should create secure, flexible pathways for this talent to come to the United States. This would not only bring skilled workers to American companies but also serve as an additional sanction on Russia’s innovation capabilities.

Fourth, immigration will be vital to countering worsening domestic demographic trends. As Derek Thompson observed, “Simply put, the US has too few births, too many deaths, and not enough immigrants. Whether by accident, design, or a total misunderstanding of basic economics, America has steered itself into the demographic danger zone.” Smart immigration reform can help counter such trends that threaten to weaken our economic growth.

Congress can use the upcoming debate on the Bipartisan Innovation Act (the new name given to joint House and Senate competitiveness bills) to advance common-sense immigration reforms that both attract and retain talent from around the world, especially in STEM fields.

The House package includes a new W-visa category for startups that would be available for foreign entrepreneurs and startup founders, their essential employees, and their spouses and children. It would also allow visa holders to apply for legal permanent resident status if their startup proves successful. Entrepreneurs would need at least a 10 percent ownership interest in the startup and play a “central and active” role in managing the company. The legislation establishes a $250,000 minimum qualifying investment threshold and $100,000 as the minimum amount of “qualifying government awards or grants” the company must receive within the owner’s 18-month pre-application period.

A second provision would exempt certain foreign nationals and their families from numerical limits on visas if they have a STEM doctoral degree from a US institution of higher education or foreign institution with an equivalent-level STEM program. This enables foreign doctorate degree holders to quickly apply for permanent residency without being subject to immigrant visa unavailability and backlogs that so many face, especially those from China.

W-1 visa holders, immigrant entrepreneurs, and immigrant STEM doctoral holders would also be required to pay a one-time fee of $1,000 that would fund STEM scholarships for low-income U.S. students.

These are good first steps, but it is also worth considering expanding the foreign-national exemption to include individuals with a STEM master’s degree. Congress should also consider other means for expediting access to permanent residency for skilled workers from Russia, China, and elsewhere.

It would also be worth including the Economic Innovation Group’s Heartland Visa concept to create a flexible pathway for skilled immigrants to settle in communities confronting population or economic stagnation. This would serve as an economic catalyst of human capital and entrepreneurial activity beyond coastal technology hubs. The heartland is well positioned for the next generation of startups thanks to new place-based investments such as Steve Cases’ Rise of the Rest, and is already a beneficiary of remote tech workers leaving expensive cities like San Francisco for areas with lower living costs and a higher quality of life. A Heartland Visa would further accelerate these trends.

The policies underlying America’s current high-skilled immigration system are at odds with our economic, innovation, and foreign policy interests. Congress should use the renewed urgency of passing a competitiveness package to better align our immigration system to attract and retain the best and brightest talent from around the world and put them to work for American companies.

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