Congress Should Question DHS on High-Skilled Immigration

As if like clockwork, the beginning of campaign season means that immigration is once again taking center stage in Washington. Amidst record breaking migration at the southern border and President Biden’s decision to end the Title 42 public health order, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, have been thrust back into the limelight. Between a review of DHS’s budget request on Wednesday and an oversight hearing on Thursday, there are sure to be fireworks on Capitol Hill as lawmakers examine the Biden administration’s immigration policies.  

But focusing solely on illegal immigration and the southern border during these hearings would be a missed opportunity. While curbing the crisis at the border should be a top priority for lawmakers, another growing immigration crisis should also be discussed: the lack of high-skilled talent. 

Many crucial industries — from artificial intelligence to semiconductor manufacturing — face severe workforce shortages in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Domestic supply of qualified talent has not kept pace with growing demand, requiring high-tech firms to recruit more workers from abroad. As the House Republican China Task Force Report highlighted, “[in] computer sciences, mathematics, and engineering, nearly 60 percent of PhD holders in the U.S. workforce are foreign-born.” This dearth of qualified talent inhibits growth and innovation in STEM fields that are the cornerstone of America’s global competitiveness.  

Meanwhile, the House and Senate are currently negotiating a legislative package aimed at increasing the United States’ global competitiveness in these same high-tech industries. The package will include tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and tax incentives for semiconductor manufacturers, supply chain resiliency, and cutting-edge R&D. However, it remains to be seen whether or not the package will address the workforce shortages in these industries.

The House-passed version of the package included a provision that would open the door to more high-skilled foreign STEM talent. But this provision was notably absent from the (more bipartisan) Senate-passed version. Now that the package is being negotiated in a conference committee with a final bill expected in May, a Senate champion for the provision is needed. 

In order to push reform for employment based immigration forward, lawmakers should take advantage of having DHS Secretary Mayorkas testify. A few questions that should be asked  include:

  • The 2020 House Republican China Task Force Report made clear that the United States is currently competing with China to attract and retain top STEM talent from abroad and that the Chinese Communist Party uses various means to “incentivize and coerce” both Chinese nationals and foreign-born talent to live and work in China.
    • What steps has DHS taken in recent years to increase America’s global competitiveness in attracting high-skilled talent?
    • What are the most significant statutory roadblocks for high-skilled immigrants that want to live and work in the United States?
  • One significant impediment to high-skilled immigration is the current backlog of cases, exacerbated by US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ anachronistic processing systems. DHS has spent decades and billions of dollars to digitize immigration processing system, yet the DHS OIG reported that USCIS still relies heavily on manual workflows and paper files.
    • How long will it take under the current, paper-based system to clear the 3.8 million case backlog that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic?
    • Are you on pace to complete the digitalization of your workflows required to meet your 5-year timeline to improve benefit processing?    

While lawmakers and the American public are right to be concerned about illegal immigration and the ongoing crisis at the Southern border, they should not forget about the other side of the immigration equation. Ensuring that the United States can compete in the 21st century will require a modern immigration system that allows US firms to recruit and retain high-skilled workers.

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