Congress Should Offer Permanent Residency to Noncitizen Scientists & Technical Experts Safeguarding National Security

by Matthew La Corte


A bipartisan group of senators is assembling a legislative package that seeks to counter China by enhancing U.S. economic competitiveness, bolstering global leadership, safeguarding national security, and dramatically expanding investments in 21st-century technologies. 

Two bipartisan bills — the Endless Frontier Act and the Strategic Competition Act — serve as the foundation for this Senate effort to lay out a strategy toward Beijing. Together, the bills help assure the U.S. is well-positioned to compete with China across all international power dimensions for decades to come, largely by dramatically increasing U.S. investment and leadership in science and technological innovation. 

Immigration policy does not have a central role in this package. But lawmakers would be wise to add at least one bipartisan immigration provision to this historic piece of legislation: the National Security Innovation Pathway Act

The bill pairs good politics with smart policy by increasing U.S. competitiveness, fostering innovation, and contributing to national security. The bill allows the U.S. to recruit, retain, and capitalize on the talent of noncitizens — from the brightest students to experienced practitioners — by providing a pathway to permanent residency for those doing essential work promoting national security and innovation in strategically important fields. 

Introduced last summer by Reps. James Langevin (D-RI) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY), the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems, the legislation is bipartisan, narrow in scope, and well-targeted at national security concerns. 

By focusing on experts who will contribute to critical technology development in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, and hypersonic flight, the bill is a natural fit for the larger China package. It should help the U.S. retain its technological preeminence in the 21st century and fortify our position as the most attractive destination for international talent.

The bill will also multiply the returns from our increased investments in research and development by creating a vital pipeline for outstanding talent in research labs across the country. This is as merit-based an immigration program as imaginable: eligible individuals not only need to have exceptional skills but need to actively use those skills to advance national security by innovating in vital fields. 

As the House GOP Task Force on China noted in a 2020 report, “the U.S. must compete in the global race for talent by working to attract and retain the best and brightest minds to contribute to the U.S. economy and drive U.S. productivity.” The bill promises to help do exactly that, advancing American defense research by drawing the world’s top talent to the United States instead of our adversaries. 

The legislation is limited to 100 visas in the first fiscal year, increasing to 500 after four years. By keeping the scale of the program small and limited to the most strongly vetted applicants, the bill does not present a significant reform to immigration policy. 

Lawmakers working on the China package understandably don’t want to saddle the primary Senate package with poison pills, but this narrow provision sidesteps politically charged and controversial immigration issues with its exclusive focus on high-skilled pathways in important positions. 

Moreover, the fees paid by applicants will cover the program’s costs and contribute to a scholarship fund for U.S. STEM students studying the same vital fields. The bill’s two-pronged approach — visas for noncitizens paired with scholarships for U.S. students — executes two complementary strategies to safeguard our technological edge: attracting and retaining top experts from around the world while simultaneously fostering home-grown talent. 

It’s therefore little surprise that the bill has received a strong endorsement from the chairs of both the Reagan Institute Task Force on Technology and Workforce and the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, created by Congress in 2019. 

In endorsing the bill, former Google CEO and AI commission chair Eric Schmidt argued the bill helps create a pipeline of top-tier talent to “provide scientific innovations that will contribute to our military’s technological capabilities.”

The Association of American Universities, the American Council on Education, the Federation of American Scientists, the American Physical Society, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the Coalition for National Security Research, essential players in American research and development, endorsed the bill.

Policies to recruit and retain world-class talent in the U.S. for the jobs of today and sectors of tomorrow are an absolute necessity to ensure the U.S. can maintain the rules-based international order in the face of an increasingly powerful and aggressive China. Protecting the legal status of ultra-high-skilled scientists, engineers, and experts while bolstering the native STEM workforce would be a reasonable step in confirming the U.S. as the world’s top source of cutting-edge innovation.

We urge the Senate to include the National Security Innovation Pathway Act in the China package to promote and protect national security innovation in the U.S .


About The Author

Matthew La Corte is the government affairs manager for immigration policy at the Niskanen Center. He leads the immigration department’s legislative outreach efforts, focusing on DACA, work visas, and refugee resettlement. His writing has been published in a wide range of outlets, including: the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Financial Times.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.