As Congress negotiates a sweeping bill aimed at making the U.S. more competitive with China, House Democrats and advocates are pushing for immigration provisions that would attract high-skilled workers and boost critical sectors of the economy.
The House passed legislation with several immigration provisions, including one that would allow more immigrants who have a doctorate degree in science, technology, engineering or math to get green cards to live and work in the U.S.
The Senate passed a much slimmer version of the bill that does not include those provisions — one of the differences that dozens of conferees from both chambers will hammer out in the coming months.
Democrats say the provisions to exempt STEM advanced-degree holders from annual limits on green cards could attract more international students at a time of declining enrollment and help high-skilled immigrants from countries like India and China avoid lengthy visa application backlogs.
“We're a beacon in the world for the best and the brightest, creative innovative people and collaborative people,” said Democratic Rep. Deborah K. Ross, who represents North Carolina’s Research Triangle. “And so, if we are no longer a desired destination for them, they will go somewhere else.”
But their efforts run up against the reality of an immigration system that hasn’t changed in decades and deep partisan divides that threaten the possibility of any action.
Some Republicans want to keep the China competition bill as narrowly focused as possible to ensure it can move quickly at a time when partisan divisions over immigration are at an all-time high. And many in the party are unwilling to make any changes to immigration law in the absence of tougher border security.
During the first official conference meeting on the China competition bill on Thursday, Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley said he would oppose the inclusion of the House immigration provisions in the final bill.
Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called those provisions “partisan” and “completely unrelated to countering China” and said that many of his colleagues share his concerns.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee, was among Democrats during that conference meeting who highlighted the immigration provisions in the House version.
“This ambitious agenda is incomplete without adequate numbers of scientists and engineers to preserve our global leadership for generations to come,” Lofgren said.
Attracting the best and brightest historically has begun with the U.S. university system, which draws international students from all over the world. But new enrollments have declined every year for the past five years.
New enrollments of foreign-born students at U.S. colleges and universities dropped for the first time in decades in 2016, and overall enrollments of those students has declined by 5 percent since 2019, according to research compiled by the advocacy group FWD.us. The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened that pattern.
China sent fewer international students to the U.S. in 2021 than in 2020, according to an April government report on international student enrollment. Experts attributed that decline to the pandemic but also noted growing surveillance of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. and anti-Asian racism that has increased during the pandemic.
Universities remain optimistic that pre-pandemic international student enrollment will eventually bounce back. But they say broader policy changes to help international students stay in the country after graduation — which are not in the bill — are needed to ensure they choose the U.S. over Canada, Australia or even China.
As Congress weighs economic competition with China specifically, keeping pathways open for Chinese international students is particularly important, advocates say.
Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., a physicist and former businessman who is often a leader on science policy, wants the House immigration provisions to remain in the final bill. “If we decide to make it impossible for Chinese with STEM degrees to come to the U.S., I think we're shooting ourselves in the foot and doing China a favor,” Foster said.
Foster said U.S. universities serve to not only incubate foreign talent but also show students from authoritarian countries what it’s like to live in a free society. “I think we have to work harder at that, to make sure that students that come here, not only for STEM degrees but for any purpose, really get the benefit of living in a free society,” he said.
U.S. economic strength depends in part on its ability to attract immigrants from around the world, advocates say. If high-skilled immigrants spend years languishing in visa backlogs, industries dependent on their talent will suffer.
“We have millions of jobs just in the STEM-related industries that are open today,” said Phillip Connor, a senior demographer at FWD.us. “And these are highly qualified individuals that would be needed for these positions — and they go unfilled year after year.”
According to the National Immigration Forum, 42 percent of STEM doctoral degree graduates are international students. Between 3,000 and 5,000 STEM doctorates apply for permanent residence in the U.S. each year.
More than four dozen former national security leaders from the Defense Department, Homeland Security Department and intelligence community released a letter last week that presses Congress to maintain the immigration provisions during the conference process.
“The U.S. remains the most desirable destination for the world’s best international scientists and engineers — a feat that China, despite extensive investments, has not come close to replicating,” the former officials wrote. “Bottlenecks in the U.S. immigration system risk squandering this advantage.”
China has taken several steps to increase its domestic talent pipeline, the officials noted, doubling its higher education budget in less than a decade. Within the next three years, China will have twice as many STEM doctoral graduates as the U.S.
Jill Welch, senior policy adviser at the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, said China has successfully attracted many African international students who might otherwise have chosen to study in the U.S.
“Because China has actually intentionally provided avenues for that, and has made investments into that, for foreign policy reasons, I think there's a lot of value in the United States making sure we're welcoming,” Welch said.
The Senate, which passed a much slimmer version of the China competition bill last year, recently voted to begin the conference process with the House. Although senators from both parties recognize the importance of attracting high-skilled immigrants, efforts to do so in the past have run into partisan divides.
Changes to the immigration system that would smooth the path for foreign workers traditionally run up against concerns about whether they would jeopardize the jobs of American citizens.
Preston Huennekens, government relations manager at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative group that opposes immigration, wrote critically earlier this year about the immigration provisions in the competition bill.
“Congress would make better use of its time and the taxpayer’s resources by focusing on enhancing American-grown STEM talent,” Huennekens wrote in a blog post.
The House version of the bill would also create a special class of nonimmigrant visas for startup entrepreneurs and introduce new protections for Uyghur Muslims and Hong Kong residents fleeing China.
Movement on the competition legislation comes after Democrats fell short in an attempt to overhaul the immigration system through a budget reconciliation bill last year.
Many advocates hope that bipartisan consensus on a need to compete with China will ensure that some immigration changes, if narrowly tailored toward high-skilled immigrants, will become law before the midterm elections.
“If we want to be economically competitive as a whole with China, that’s really the easiest route,” Connor said. “Maybe not necessarily politically, but at least demographically — to increase immigration.”