PITTENGER: Advancing America’s global competitiveness with immigration should be a GOP issue

FILE - In this April 20, 2018, file photo, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-North Carolina, speaks at an event on tax policy in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

We live in a world where a country’s economic and national security is largely dependent on its ability to develop and utilize advanced technology — an area in which the United States is falling behind. While many GOP lawmakers acknowledge this, too many want to avoid addressing flaws within the immigration system that kick out international talent in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Retaining this talent is one of the quickest, most bipartisan solutions that promises long-term benefits.  

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. graduate students in artificial intelligence (AI) and semiconductor-related programs were born abroad, according to the Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Our current laws, however, drive such qualified, American-educated STEM workers back home or into the arms of tech behemoths who can sponsor their H-1B visas. We’re also giving competitors such as China the opportunity to poach these highly-skilled workers educated at the finest universities in the U.S. to fuel their own aggressive domestic and international ambitions.  

The Chinese government has made it clear that they are trying to surpass the U.S. as a global leader in advanced technologies like 5G, AI, and space exploration. Currently, Chinese universities graduate roughly three STEM PhDs for every two graduated by U.S. universities each year.  

Meanwhile, our small and mid-sized businesses face major labor shortages as big-tech firms monopolize the workforce. According to the Small Business Administration, large tech firms employ almost 60 percent of high-tech workers. With a limited number of skilled workers available, the critical businesses in semiconductor fabrication or aerospace manufacturing, among other industries, struggle to open their doors or grow to a competitive size within their tech fields.  

We must use China’s growing technological authority as a motive to revive corporate investment in scientific research. The House and Senate have come together for a legislative conference to decide the fate of the COMPETES/United States Innovation and Competition (USICA) Act. The House version, which passed earlier this year, has a specific provision (80303) exempting foreign nationals with advanced STEM degrees from green card caps, offering them permanent residency opportunities.  

These individuals should not be confused with unskilled immigrants illegally crossing our southern border. Those migrants are fueling a “humanitarian disaster” whereas the STEM workers, who are already here legally, can build up our high-skilled workforce and unleash a domino effect of success if they are allowed to stay.  

Passing Section 80303 would benefit American companies experiencing STEM worker shortages and help us onshore new companies and manufacturing plants. A recent analysis estimated that STEM workers in the U.S generate around $25 trillion in economic output, producing $2.3 and $1.2 trillion in federal and state tax revenues. If we were able to retain even more of these highly skilled individuals, we could unlock even more long-term economic prosperity.  

There are several influential Republican senators in ongoing talks about this legislation who have expressed optimism the bill could serve as a bipartisan vehicle for long-awaited changes that will retain international talent here at home. Roughly eight-in-ten Americans agree and support encouraging highly skilled people to immigrate to or remain in the U.S and work. The GOP should see this for what it is — a sign that immigration reform doesn’t have to be all or nothing and that the party can position itself to take credit for a win that makes our economy and global presence more resilient.  

We must not squander an opportunity to address national security and global competition challenges, while confronting big-tech and China head-on using the STEM workers that specialize in critical technologies. Let’s have the vision to provide appropriate citizenship for these highly educated and trained individuals who will enable the United States to maintain the technology advantage for our economy and our national security.  

Robert Pittenger is a businessman and former U.S. Rep. for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional district, serving from 2013 to 2019. He currently serves as the Chairman of the Parliamentary Intelligence-Security Forum.