Many industries in Silicon Valley, Texas and the Northeast already rely on highly skilled, foreign-born workers for a significant portion of their workforces. Such workers are particularly valuable in sectors of the U.S. economy tied to the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Last year, a National Foundation for American Policy study found that up to 70 percent of students in a few key U.S. STEM graduate programs are foreign-born.
And now, the U.S. defense industry is adapting to a national military strategy more reliant on technological superiority than on amassed hardware or troops. As defense professionals at the Pentagon and beyond revise their military plans, they are seeing an increasingly acute need for these talented STEM workers.
The importance of keeping foreign-born, graduating STEM students in this country cannot be overestimated.
Part of the need for foreign-born STEM workers is driven by a simple principle of supply-and-demand economics. The number of available H-1B visas is limited, and many of these STEM workers need the visas to immigrate to the United States. Currently, only 85,000 visas are granted each year. Many foreign-born, would-be STEM professionals come to the United States to study on student visas, but when they graduate, those who cannot obtain an H-1B visa must return to their respective home countries.
The recent budget-driven sequester cut spending in all federal departments, and those cuts have impacted the outlook for future defense strategy. The Obama administration has already reduced military outlays in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, it seeks ways to cut back troop levels and jettison unnecessary, expensive weapons systems in order to maintain an efficiently lean, economical military.
As part of that strategy, the Defense Department has placed a premium on technological advances. But restrictive policies on immigration limit the number of H-1B visas to a total that does not meet the existing demand. The shortage of visas may crimp the Pentagon’s objectives.
Immigration policy troubles the Pentagon, but it is not their only quandary. Competition also affects requiting: many foreign-born STEM graduate students primarily seek a career in Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas. Employment with the defense establishment is often less tempting and, even more often, less lucrative.
A bill that would grant U.S. citizenship to immigrants with advanced STEM degrees passed the U.S. Senate last year, but it has sputtered in the House. Meanwhile, Defense Department officials have publicly emphasized the need for new technologies.
“We must maintain our technological edge over potential adversaries,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.[footer block_id=’903′]