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Want to secure U.S. supply chains? Reform high-skilled immigration

President Joe Biden holds up a circle-shaped, rainbow colored silicon wafer
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
President Joe Biden holds up a silicon wafer as he participates virtually in the CEO Summit on Semiconductor and Supply Chain Resilience in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, April 12, 2021, in Washington.

Congress has hung its hopes for securing critical U.S. supply chains on passing legislation that would merge the Senate’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act and the House-passed America COMPETES Act. One of the bills’ most prominent measures would invest $52 billion to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to the United States. 

That funding is badly needed, but bolstering supply chains requires more than just money. As negotiations move forward, a final agreement should also retain a more obscure, but essential, House provision that would help address growing talent shortages in key U.S. industries like semiconductor manufacturing. To give onshoring the best chance of success, the United States must also onshore the STEM talent it needs to compete.

America’s economic and national security depend on secure access to leading-edge technologies. Consider semiconductors, which power all modern electronics — from cars and smartphones to military equipment and critical infrastructure. Ongoing global chip shortages have contributed to sky-high inflation and taken a full percentage point off of GDP over the last year

As a result, the need to reduce U.S. chip dependence has become a rare point of bipartisan consensus. In the words of Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), “There’s probably no greater vulnerability in the United States from a national security and economic perspective than our dependency on supply chains of semiconductors that are made outside of the country, primarily Asia, and then shipped here to the United States.”

Both the Innovation and Competition Act and the COMPETES Act, therefore, include tens of billions of dollars in funding to bring chipmaking back to the United States. But funding is not the only ingredient needed to bolster critical U.S. industries. The other is talent — which is in short supply. 

“What we’re finding is it’s extremely difficult to find the skills that we need,” Mark Papermaster, CTO of leading U.S. chip company AMD, recently said. The dean of Purdue’s College of Engineering noted that talent gaps are “one of the most vulnerable” parts of the U.S. semiconductor supply chain.

Without significant reforms, these workforce problems will only get worse. In a recent study, we estimated the staffing needs of the chipmaking facilities that would be built with funding from the new innovation bill and found that U.S. chipmakers would need to hire tens of thousands of additional workers — many of them from overseas, where most of the world’s scientists and engineers with the necessary skills reside. Foreign-born STEM talent already makes up approximately 40 percent of all high-skilled workers in the U.S. semiconductor industry. 

Yet immigration bottlenecks are increasingly hitting these much-needed workers. The most serious problem is a cap on green cards that has not been updated since the 1990s. As of 2021, 1.4 million people were waiting to receive employment-based green cards, with backlogs leading to projected wait times of several decades for hundreds of thousands of high-skilled applicants — and these problems are only getting worse.

To address that bottleneck, the COMPETES Act included a provision that would exempt from green card caps those with advanced STEM degrees in national security-relevant industries like chipmaking. But a similar provision wasn’t included in the bill’s Senate counterpart, and it is unclear whether one will be in the final version. Omitting such a provision from the final bill would undercut U.S. competitiveness in semiconductors and other strategic industries. 

The primary concern some members of Congress have about the provision is that, despite its importance, it could “add controversy.” 

“The most important thing we can do is shore up the supply chain vulnerability. Everything else, to my mind, is secondary,” Cornyn said recently. 

But a targeted STEM talent measure is necessary precisely because it would help shore up supply chains. A recent report found that, even before today’s acute shortages, access to talent has been a key motivation for offshoring among U.S. semiconductor companies.

A STEM immigration provision would also carry deep bipartisan support. The provision included in the COMPETES Act was endorsed by 49 national security leaders — including senior defense and intelligence officials from every recent administration — in an open letter that called international talent America’s “most powerful and enduring asymmetric advantage” in its technology competition with China. Both the Biden administration and the House GOP’s China Task Force have also called for STEM immigration reforms.

American universities and firms have long attracted and retained the world’s best scientists and engineers. Allowing immigration bottlenecks to erode this cornerstone of American technological leadership and jeopardize U.S. national security would be a profound mistake.

Will Hunt is a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), and Remco Zwetsloot is a trustee fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Tags America COMPETES Act Immigration John Cornyn Politics of the United States semiconductor shortage supply chain issues U.S. Innovation and Competition Act

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