Richard Drury

To Protect America, Loosen Visa Caps for STEM Experts

America must dismantle the obstacles that dissuade the world’s brightest innovators from coming.

When it comes to immigration policy, there’s little that the authors—a former Trump administration official and a former Obama administration official—have in common. However, we both recognize that attracting the world’s best in key fields is critical to U.S. competitiveness and national security—and that today’s visa caps are imperiling those efforts.

Congress should lift the cap on visas for certain advanced STEM degree holders, allowing more of the brightest engineers, scientists, and tech innovators to bring their talents and ideas to our shores. This is a simple step, but it is not small or symbolic; it is crucial to the future of the industries that produce cutting-edge military and commercial technology. Foreign-born scientists and engineers hold more than half of the defense industrial base’s advanced degrees. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. graduate students in artificial intelligence and semiconductor-related programs were born abroad. 

The U.S. remains the most desirable destination for the world’s best scientists and engineers — a feat that China, despite extensive investments, hasn’t come close to replicating—yet. But other nations have made the process of studying and working within their borders easier, even as America has shut doors and erected more obstacles. Today, top Indian STEM graduates are projected to face decades of wait time before being issued a green card. Such delays are driving talent away. More than half of AI PhDs who leave the country after graduating say they did so because of immigration issues. 

Meanwhile, China is growing its domestic STEM talent pipelines. It has doubled its higher education budget in less than a decade. Chinese universities are rapidly climbing in the global rankings. While the United States began this century with a comfortable lead in the production of advanced degrees, Chinese schools now issue twice as many master’s degrees in STEM fields as do U.S. schools and will do the same for Ph.Ds within three years.

Attracting and keeping this talent shouldn’t be a partisan issue. In a recent letter to the members of the Bipartisan Innovation Act Conference Committee, 49 national-security experts—including former secretaries and deputy secretaries of defense, energy, and homeland security who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations—made the case for exempting advanced degree holders in STEM fields from annual green-card limits. “This conference committee, as it reconciles differences between America COMPETES (H.R. 4521) and USICA (S. 1260), has a critical opportunity to tackle the self-inflicted drag that immigration bottlenecks impose on American competitiveness,” the letter said.

Congress should look to recent bipartisan reform attempts such as the Startup Act from last Congress that granted an extra 50,000 conditional green cards to people who graduate with advanced STEM degrees and are employed in STEM roles. While this number includes spouses and dependents, an ideal target for lawmakers should be to admit 20,000 STEM degree holders on top of existing numbers.

We cannot protect our country by shutting off access to the best scientists, inventors, and innovators in the world. From Albert Einstein to Sergey Brin, immigrants have produced some of our most significant advances. It is time we set aside some of the toxicity in the immigration debate in the interest of economic and national security.

Alyssa Farah Griffin is a former Pentagon Press Secretary in the Trump Administration. Brett Bruen is a former Director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House. Both are adjunct professors at Georgetown University.