Our Hand-Cranked Immigration System

Produced by CNBC

Back in December I made a big life change. Perhaps bigger than getting a dog. Nearly as life-changing (for me) as getting engaged.

I got a car with power windows. And power locks.

Nothing crazy. But, relatively speaking, I now drive a microchip on wheels.

This made me think about our hand cranked and push button immigration system, which it turns out has undermined our ability to retain global talent and risks weakening our nation’s security.

Let’s chat about this.

My colleague Arturo Castellanos-Canales points out that every year, the U.S. sets aside 226,000 family-preference green cards for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens; 140,000 employment-based green cards; and 50,000 diversity green cards.

Covid-19 and the previous administration’s gutting of USCIS have slowed the processing of all of the above. Which means tens of thousands of green cards go unused and … poof … disappear.

That only exacerbates the backlog of some 5 million green card applications, which is made even worse by per-country caps that create decades long waits for immigrants from countries such as India or China.

Bipartisan efforts to recapture unused green cards have failed to move forward. Because, well, hand-cranked politics are a money maker.

Now, via budget reconciliation, there is an opportunity to recapture unused green cards and bring our immigration system to the level of power windows. (Let’s not get greedy and ask for temperature-controlled seats.)

On Friday, the New York Times reported that Biden’s latest reconciliation plan includes a proposal that would recapture hundreds of thousands of green cards unused over several decades, “making them available for immigrants who are currently caught up in the backlog.”

While the Senate parliamentarian has ruled against provisions allowing for legalization of undocumented immigrants, in 2005, according to the Niskanen Center’s Jeremy Neufeld, “the Republican-controlled Senate passed a reconciliation bill that would recapture unused green cards.” The provisions were ultimately not included in the final budget, no challenge was raised on procedural grounds.

The Times reported that in 2005 Senator Cornyn supported “recapturing unused visas for high-skilled workers in a reconciliation package as a way to ‘keep jobs here in America, rather than export them to places like India and China.’”

This is no longer just a matter of keeping jobs in the U.S.

In September, our partners at the Council on National Security and Immigration (CNSI) published a new paper, “High-Skilled Immigration: America’s Key for Competitiveness and National Security.”

They point out that China may overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy because, in part, of “the fact that the tech industry in China has grown exponentially in the last few years.” Not to mention, “China’s pattern of malicious cyber activity poses a major threat to U.S. economic and national security.”

These days, with 60% of total global foundry revenue last year, Taiwan currently dominates the computer chip manufacturing market. South Korea is second, with China and the U.S. behind it. While both Taiwan and South Korea are making efforts to develop smaller and better chips, China is unable to acquire the necessary technology because of blacklisting by the Trump administration.

Which means that if China was to make good on threats to fully control Taiwan via military action, the math of chip manufacturing would change overnight and the U.S., if not the world, would be massively dependent on China.

Realizing the technological fight we are in, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 on June 8th. The bill would challenge China’s growing dominance in the technology fields, as well as significantly boost chip manufacturing capacity in the U.S.

According to the CNSI report, the bill would authorize more than $100 billion over five years “to discover, build, and enhance tomorrow’s most vital technologies — from artificial intelligence to computer chips, to the lithium batteries used in smart devices and electric vehicles — right here in the United States.” And it would provide some $52 billion to provide incentives to companies that make high-end microchips in the U.S.

The bill sits in the House waiting for action. Because hand crank politics.

Let’s just say the bill was to pass, would the U.S. workforce have enough workers with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees to execute its provisions?

Simply put, no.

The relatively easy part is the physical plant capacity which, experts say, would take a few years to bring online. Intel, for example, continues to expand in Arizona. But this is not a “if you build it the engineers will come” situation.

Keep in mind that as of 2021, according to CNSI, immigrants made up 26% of the STEM workforce in the U.S., with the number of foreign-born STEM workers increasing from 509,000 (11.9% of the STEM workforce) in 1990 to almost two million (24.3% of the STEM workforce) in 2015.

So, unless we magically produce STEM graduates, we will face an even greater shortage of talent as these plants come online.

In the U.S., one is hard pressed to develop and sustain political attention to such an existential challenge to our competitiveness, much less our security. Not so much in China.

Again, in the CNSI report, “High-level officials of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are painfully aware of their high-skilled exodus problem and the labor shortage that it creates. They have stressed that “the number of top talents lost in China ranks first in the world.”

Plants take years to operationalize. Modernizing our immigration system so we maintain America’s dominance and outperform China can happen, practically speaking, overnight.

Including a remedy for the green card backlog is one step in that direction.

President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.