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US-China trade

The immigration advantage in the US-China STEM contest

Published 07 May 2024

The US has an asymmetric advantage over China in advancing its global technological leadership: the ability to draw on top STEM talent, a major force multiplier especially in critical and defense-related technologies, from around the world. Attracting top talent is not a tool that China can easily replicate. Yet the deteriorating conditions of legal pathways in the US to immigration for high-skilled STEM experts threaten to undermine this strategic advantage. Our Asia Policy Special Essay warns of what the US risks squandering.

Foreword to the Special Essay

Trade is an expression and measure of trust between people, businesses, and nations. People are at the heart of any thriving trade, and their free movement underpins the value of the intellectual exchange. If such exchanges are stymied, we place at stake a set of values in openness, democracy, and trust, all of which increasingly are the subject of an intensifying global geopolitical contest.

Jeremy Neufeld writes in this Asia Policy special essay on one of the most important aspects of this contest’s inflections: the nexus between trade, global leadership, and immigration policy. His is an eloquent disquisition on how the greatest strengths of the United States are built on the backs of immigrants, the formidable challenge mounted by China in amassing its own scientific talent, the complacency in US trade and immigration policy that may prove to be the United States’ undoing, and how very high the stakes are.

Neufeld lays out data showing how China has surpassed the United States as the world’s largest source of peer-reviewed research and quantum computing. It outspends the United States in key areas of research and development. It has put in place well-financed programs to attract global talent.

China is still a distant second in most areas of science and technology competition, but it is closing the gap at warp speed. The United States, meanwhile, Neufeld writes, has lulled itself into complacency. Washington does not seem to realize that it cannot – and has never been able to – rely on domestic talent alone to retain its edge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Yet US immigration policy has not kept up. The road to US permanent residency remains thicketed in red tape. Visa rules discourage immigrants from joining the private sector. In a stunning statistic, Neufeld points out that in 2020 an Indian graduate with a STEM degree who applied for a US green card would have to wait a projected 195 years, based on an analysis of immigration backlogs.

The United States is still the world’s top destination for immigrants. But Washington once understood their value better than it does now: the US welcomed German scientists in World War II to supercharge weapons and technological research for the Pacific campaign. It spirited away Soviet talent to win the Cold War.

The Indian historian Vijay Prashad described the first postwar generation of Indian Americans as the “twice blessed” – once because they were born after Indian independence, and again because they were born after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (the Hart-Celler Act), which swept away decades of discriminatory immigration laws and sparked a surge of talented immigrants, including Indians, to US shores.

The Hinrich Foundation is a philanthropy dedicated to advancing sustainable global trade. In the vortex of the global debate on the future of trade, immigration is often the forgotten stepchild. Economies that trade better are founded on openness, and that includes receptiveness toward the dreams of would-be immigrants flung across the world. Trade, after all, is about people.

Chuin Wei Yap
Program Director, International Trade Research, Hinrich Foundation

© The Hinrich Foundation. See our website Terms and conditions for our copyright and reprint policy. All statements of fact and the views, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s).

Jeremy Neufeld is a Senior Immigration Fellow at the Institute for Progress (United States), where he leads the immigration policy portfolio. 

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