The Biden administration and Congress need to act to save major investments from being wasted.
Elected officials representing regions that host international students in advanced STEM programs need to step up and lead the call for policy actions and legislation to improve and expand immigration pathways for international graduates, particularly those with advanced STEM degrees.
Congress should start immediately by building on the “section 80303” legislative language that was included in early drafts of the CHIPS and Science Act, which would have exempted qualified individuals with advanced STEM degrees from immigration caps, allowing U.S. employers to hire certain international advanced STEM degree holders without regard to per-country limits, otherwise applicable worldwide limits on immigration, or the extensive backlogs. Congress can use this framework as a pilot to focus narrowly on key industries, like semiconductors, climate technology, and artificial intelligence, and then broaden eligibility and adjust based on results.
Ultimately, Congress must update and expand the existing immigration pathways for international graduates to remain and work in the U.S. after graduation, particularly those whose work is in the national interest and important to national security, so that they are not delayed or denied because of outdated numerical limits or employment-based categories.
The Biden administration should also take immediate steps to better leverage existing immigration processes so that companies can hire the workers needed to deliver on the President’s agenda. For example, federal agencies involved in CHIPS investments, like the Department of Commerce, should set up public-facing programs to provide guidance and help highly skilled workers seeking visas through existing employment-based pathways, like EB-1 and O-1 “extraordinary ability” visas, or EB-2 “exceptional ability” visas. This should include helping aspiring immigrants evaluate if they qualify for national interest waivers based on their education and ability; these waivers exempt qualified workers from certain labor certification processes, expediting their application process. Similarly, the administration could resume regular updates to Schedule A, a list of occupations for which the Department of Labor (DOL) has determined there is a shortage of available workers in the U.S., also expediting the labor certification process.
It is important to note that the workers who could qualify for these waivers are highly educated, highly skilled, and highly paid. To qualify for EB-1 or O-1 visas, individuals must demonstrate “sustained national or international acclaim” in their field of expertise, as evidenced by major prizes (like a Nobel Prize), high salaries, publications, or professional recognition. The EB-2 visa pathway is available for occupations that require an advanced degree, or for individuals who can demonstrate their experience and exceptional ability in the field. While they would be exempt from certain steps in the labor certification process, evidence shows that these highly skilled workers are paid a premium for their expertise; DOL data from fiscal 2021 show that advanced degree holders on nonimmigrant visas, often a precursor for these employment-based pathways, make on average $96,000 per year, very comparable to the U.S.-born advanced STEM degree holder at an estimated $99,000, according to American Community Survey data.
The future of American competitiveness, including this historic effort to onshore advanced manufacturing and to build new industries and new job opportunities for U.S.-born workers, will be determined by how seriously elected officials take the pressing need to address these skilled labor shortfalls. The U.S. stands to lose thousands of highly educated and skilled experts because of its outdated immigration policies. It’s time to end the self-inflicted pain and fix the system.