New Talks in the Senate Present a Pathway for High-Skilled Immigration Reform

For decades, immigration reform has been a white whale for Congress. Despite bipartisan legislative efforts, executive branch buy-in, and broad agreement that the current system is broken, immigration reform legislation has proven elusive. Now that a bipartisan group of Senators has once again begun legislative discussions on the topic, there may soon be opportunities to advance much needed changes. One piece of low hanging fruit that deserves consideration is expanding high-skilled immigration.

Last week, Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and John Cornyn (R-TX) met for the first in a “series of ongoing meetings” on the topic of immigration. In contrast to previous immigration reform efforts, the new cross-cutting group is taking a more practical approach. Rather than drafting sweeping, new legislation, the group is discussing which current immigration bills — if any — could pass through the Senate. Presumably, they would then roll these bills into a package that has implicit approval of 60 senators.

In taking this tack, the group is attempting to avoid the failures of past attempts to pass significant immigration reform. Most notably, the so-called “Gang of Eight” which included Sen. Durbin failed to get their comprehensive package past the House even though it had received 68 votes in the Senate. With campaign season ramping up, the new group of Senators is clearly counting on Speaker Pelosi to deliver the House votes if only they can deliver enough Republican senators.

To achieve this mission, the group must focus on proposals that already have Republican support. While this means a comprehensive package is a political non-starter, there are several smaller statutory changes that Republicans could support that would also yield a high return on investment. Increased access for high-skilled immigrants is one of these areas.

Protecting and increasing America’s global competitiveness in high-tech industries is rightfully a top priority for both parties. Legislation currently being negotiated between the House and Senate — the America COMPETES Act in the House and the United States Innovation and Competition Act in the Senate — includes over $100 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to spur domestic investment in research and development and critical industries like semiconductor manufacturing. Unfortunately, the current lack of workers skilled in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) means that much of this new federal spending might go to waste.

The lack of high-skilled STEM workers creates a massive drag on the United States’ global competitiveness in high-tech industries. As the 2020 House Republican China Task Force Report explained: 

As of 2017, over 40 percent of the U.S. doctoral-level workforce was foreign-born. In computer sciences, mathematics, and

engineering, nearly 60 percent of PhD holders in the U.S. workforce are foreign-born… While developing a domestic STEM workforce should remain a priority, in the near and medium term the U.S. will remain reliant on foreign talent.

Yet, the current structure of the United States’ employment based immigration system discourages high-skilled workers from living and working in the U.S. Enormous backlogs due to outdated, paper-based systems and statutory caps on the number of workers are already depriving domestic high-tech industries of the labor they need to stay globally competitive. For example, one analysis of the semiconductor industry found that the U.S. needs to increase its current high-skilled workforce by 50 percent to meet the growing labor demand.

This issue is something that both sides of the aisle agree must be addressed. In fact, the China Task Force Report went so far as to state that the U.S. immigration system “must be updated to meet the needs of the modern economy.” 

One provision of the House-passed version of the global competitiveness package would help address this issue by allowing more foreign workers with advanced degrees in STEM fields into the United States. Unfortunately, this provision was absent in the Senate-passed version and would require a Senate champion to make it into the final package. Yet, even if this provision does not make it into the final package, all is not lost. 

The bipartisan Senate talk to find common ground also offers a promising opportunity to revamp our system for employment based immigration. If Congress is not to squander tens of billions in subsidies for high-tech industries, it must also address the high-skilled labor shortage. Especially for Republicans who care deeply about both fiscal conservatism and global competitiveness, broadening immigration to allow more high-skilled talent to live and work in the United States should be a top priority.

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