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SPECIAL REPORT: How Immigration Reforms Can Help Counter China

SPECIAL REPORT: How Immigration Reforms Can Help Counter China

SPECIAL REPORT: How Immigration Reforms Can Help Counter China

iStock illustration This is part 3 of a 3-part special report on the health of the defense industrial base. Click here to download the full Vital Signs 2023 report. China’s growing might and control over critical supply chains has prompted the United States to invest billions into “reshoring” the manufacturing of semiconductors and defense-related technologies. To fill new high-tech jobs that investment will create, the United States must reform cumbersome immigration policies to bring in skilled foreign talent — it’s a matter of national security, according to defense, immigration and congressional experts. The $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 is projected to create 30,000 to 100,000 jobs, according to analyses by academic, industry and research organizations. Even with recent layoffs in the tech sector, there isn’t a standing supply of U.S. workers ready to jump into new semiconductor or defense manufacturing jobs, analysts say. “We see that there’s a huge labor crunch,” said Jeremy Neufeld, a senior immigration fellow at the Institute for Progress. “Something like 80 percent of firms within the defense industrial base are reporting having a hard time filling job vacancies as it is.” And the shortage is more pronounced for sectors like semiconductors where much of the expertise is outside the United States, he added. Neufeld and other experts say the United States needs to continue developing the domestic talent pool and get more Americans into science, technology, engineering and math fields, but that’s a longer-term endeavor that will take years to pay off. “If we want to be serious about developing a workforce that can compete with China, we need to use whatever is in our toolbox,” Neufeld said. “I think both the immigration lever and the domestic training lever shouldn’t be thought of as totally separate, but they actually reinforce one another.” That’s because building up industries like semiconductor manufacturing in the United States requires instruction and mentorship from the Taiwanese and South Koreans who are the leaders in the field, he said. And to fill workforce gaps in the short run, the United States needs to tap more deeply into the global supply of high-skilled workers, he said. “We’ve passed the CHIPS Act. We’re increasing our defense spending,” said Charles Wessner, who teaches global innovation policy at Georgetown and serves as an advisor to the Renewing American Innovation Program at the Center for Security and International Studies. “We recognize the existential threat that China is posing to a rules-based system and to potentially our own safety. And we won’t bring in the people that we need to compete with them,” he said. He and others noted that the United States has never been self-sufficient and has always immigrated, borrowed or poached the world’s science and technology talent. “When we were desperately trying to do the Manhattan Project — and I think AI and quantum may be comparable — we didn’t say, ‘We can do this with Americans, we just have to train them and find them,’” he said. “We took the best minds we could find in the world and brought them together,” he said. Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, said the United States needs to look beyond the workforce implications and see high-skilled immigration through a national security lens. For example, Chinese scientists are doing a lot of “cool stuff” with artificial intelligence, he said. Yet in recent years the United States has been discouraging potential students or scientists from China from coming to the United States. “There’s got to be some thinking that if we’re going to do more of this stuff at home, we’re going to need more people, and that’s the time to also get the best people away from our competitors,” he said. “Let’s have them do their good stuff in the United States.” For that matter, he and others argued that the United States should create a program to bring in Russian scientists who fled after Russia invaded Ukraine. “I hope we have a scheme of how to turn those into our allies and friends … for national security,” he said. “It’s a notion [that] America is appealing in general … and we’ve got to think more about, how do we use that to undermine the bad guys?” The current options for bringing foreign tech talent into the United States are limited to a few programs. Foreign students are welcome in U.S. universities, but once they complete their degrees, there are no […]

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Daisie Hobson

Daisie Hobson is a Director at the Reshoring Institute and an engineer with many years of experience in manufacturing and project management.

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