STEMming the Crisis: Immigration and the U.S. National Security Talent Base


As the Oscar-winning film Oppenheimer popularized the story of the Manhattan Project, we were reminded that foreign-born geniuses like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi played a major part in American innovation. In the context of World War II, America not only welcomed but also recruited immigrants in service of its most important national security missions. Their achievements helped win that war and create the nuclear backbone that underpins U.S. security to this day. But today, the chances that Einstein could win the arbitrary H1-B visa lottery are a mere 11 percent.

The Reagan Institute’s 2024 National Security Innovation Base Report Card assesses America’s strengths and weaknesses in the race for supremacy in fielding emerging technologies to meet today’s national security missions. One major vulnerability: the talent pipeline for fields relevant to national security innovation in the face of techno-competition with the People’s Republic of China. While America struggles to address a graying national security workforce and archaic vetting processes, its adversaries and partners alike are pursuing programs to exploit the broken U.S. immigration system.



The pitfalls in the U.S. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent pipeline, particularly with international students, are glaring. As America attracts the world’s most promising minds and educates them at America’s best universities, the U.S. government funds their research through taxpayer dollars — then fails to provide a pathway for them to stay in the United States. Due to America’s byzantine immigration system, as many as 90 percent of foreign students receiving advanced degrees in STEM fields are forced to leave the country after graduation, massively depleting America’s potential workforce.

Our national security innovation base — the ecosystem comprising U.S. national security organizations, research laboratories, defense primes, industry disruptors, and venture capital — is especially vulnerable to these talent shortfalls. Research, development, and manufacturing in AI, quantum computing, hypersonic weapons, and autonomy are precisely the sectors where Washington needs the most talented minds working to advance U.S. national security. The end result is a paradox in which America trains the world’s best and brightest and then sends them home — many to adversary nations.

This talent deficit isn’t a problem that money can fix. Breathtaking investment through the CHIPS and Science Act cannot be translated into outcomes without filling the need for an estimated 300,000 more engineers than U.S. universities will graduate by 2030. Even with significant CHIPS funding, the opening of a new semiconductor facility in Arizona has been delayed due to a shortage of skilled labor. The STEM talent vacuum is expected to reach 1.4 million people in the next six years. And while increasing our domestic STEM talent pipeline is vital, these efforts will take time to yield results — time that the United States doesn’t have in the innovation race with China. Addressing the talent deficit at the speed of relevance will require urgent action to both attract and retain foreign talent.

The last time Congress passed comprehensive immigration reform was during the Ronald Reagan administration. With nearly 80 percent of the leading U.S.-based AI companies founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, locking bright minds out of the U.S. national security innovation base ecosystem because of immigration reform deadlock is strategic seppuku.

America’s adversaries are well aware of this self-inflicted talent crisis and are leveraging it to their advantage. The Chinese Communist Party is courting foreign talent to fuel its knowledge-based economy and propel its vision of “Made in China 2025.” State-controlled media has articulated the party’s anxiety that U.S. immigration reform would deal a blowto China’s talent pipeline. America’s failure to absorb the world’s brightest minds is a windfall for China’s own innovation-focused growth model, and Beijing has instituted the Thousand Talent Program to lure those innovators to its shores. China poaches talent abroad by offering post-doctoral researchers higher salaries and grants than they often receive in the United States, United Kingdom, or Australia.

Even U.S. allies and partners are benefitting from America’s missteps. The United Kingdom has instituted a High Potential Individual visa program to attract talented candidates based on a points system. Similarly, Canada created a high-skilled express visa system to draw American-trained talent.

Fears that greater participation by foreign-born talent in the U.S. national security innovation base ecosystem will increase the threat of espionage are not unfounded. Intelligence reports reveal that Chinese efforts to steal innovation-related intellectual property have reached unprecedented levels that far exceed traditional espionage. But the U.S. government’s extensive security clearance process and compartmentalized access to information are designed to mitigate these threats, whether foreign or domestic in origin. By no means should any individual of concern be granted a visa to work in sensitive national security roles. But why would Washington want to send the next great genius back to their country of origin? Both Einstein and Fermi immigrated from interwar Germany and Italy, where fascism was on the rise. America has historically benefitted from the brain drain that adversary countries experience. It’s a comparative advantage the United States should protect, not relinquish.

Technological supremacy alone isn’t the key to 21st-century competition. The more exquisite the technology, the more highly skilled the workforce needed. When it comes to the battlefield, the future will be all about human-machine teaming. And while America is advancing new initiatives to surge ahead in technology, the United States is falling behind on the human component. Despite bipartisan agreement on the need to advance U.S. leadership in technology, immigration remains bitterly polarized. Still, reforms remain in reach that can meaningfully improve America’s strategic footing.

The Biden administration has attempted to make changes within existing authorities by simplifying visa procedures for high-skilled applicants, including by widening eligible fields of study for the STEM Optional Training Program, clarifying qualifications for the O-1A nonimmigrant of extraordinary ability visa, and announcing new guidance on national interest waivers for EB-2 immigrant visas. These efforts are all to the good. But the severity of the talent deficit will require more than improvements at the margins.

First, Congress should create what we are calling a “National Security Innovation Base Visa” that incentivizes vetted talent with relevant skills to immigrate and foreign-born students with relevant degrees to stay. The program would recruit high-skilled workers in fields like AI, automation, cybersecurity, and an array of dual-use technologies to contribute across the national security innovation ecosystem. Originally proposed by the Reagan Institute’s Task Force on 21st-Century National Security Technology and Workforce, the idea has continued to gain traction with observers like David McCormick, now a Senate candidate, as a solution that harnesses America’s historical strength as a nation of immigrants.

Second, Congress should establish a green card “recapture” program to expand access to the talent needed to fuel the U.S. innovation ecosystem. The program would “recapture” unused green cards like the 100,000 unallocated spots following the pandemic, redirecting them to candidates with skills in high demand relevant to national security. This idea is featured as a signature recommendation in the Reagan Institute’s latest National Security Innovation Base Report Card as a way to stem the talent pipeline crisis and rescue a grade moving in the wrong direction at the wrong time.

Alongside these efforts, the U.S. government must increase its institutional capacity to vet visa candidates, investigate cases of espionage and intellectual property theft, and aggressively prosecute offenders. The answer to those who claim that immigration reform will lead to exploitation by U.S. adversaries is to step up enforcement, not deprive the workforce of the vast majority of immigrants who would contribute in good faith.

In a 1980 speech at the Statue of Liberty, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan spoke of the “Golden Door” through which millions of Americans had immigrated: “These families came here to work. They came to build. They didn’t ask what this country could do for them but what they could do to make this refuge the greatest home of freedom in history.” Our race to out-innovate America’s adversaries is not just about breakthroughs in technology. It is in the humans that propel those breakthroughs and their ability to advance freedom as contributors to the American national security enterprise.



Rachel Hoff serves as policy director at the Ronald Reagan Institute, the Washington, DC, office of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Before joining the institute, she was speechwriter and policy advisor for John McCain at the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

Reed Kessler is the associate director of policy at the Ronald Reagan Institute in Washington, DC, and a fellow in the International Strategy Forum. She previously served at the Department of State, the U.N. Operations and Crisis Centre, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Reed also holds an Olympic world record from the London Olympics.

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