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Conversations with Jeremy Robbins: STEM Immigration Reforms and the Biden White House.

Jeremy Robbins is the Executive Director of the American Immigration Council. Previously, Jeremy spent more than a decade building New American Economy, the think tank and advocacy organization founded by Michael Bloomberg to make the economic case for smarter immigration policies, as NAE’s first and sole Executive Director. 

Scientific Inquirer discussed the role of immigrants in American STEM and the Biden Administration’s efforts to reform a broken process with Jeremy Robbins.

Jeremy Robbins. (CREDIT: American Immigration Council)

Can we just kind of start with two really general questions. Can you do some background on the sort of history of high skilled visas in America?

The modern system of high skilled visas in America basically started in 1990 with Immigration Act. In that bill, the government essentially created what we have today of the H-1B visa system, which allows temporary high skilled workers to enter the United States with a visa for three years which is renewable for one time, so six years total. Unlike other temporary visas, the temporary H-1B high skilled visa is a visa of dual intent. The idea of it is that you are going to come here for some time, but we recognize that it is really good for America’s competitive advantage that the smartest people in the world want to come here and innovate here. You can actually apply for a green card from the H-1B visa. 

There are a number of problems with the way this system works in attracting STEM talent. The first has to do with just who gets through the door for the H-1 visa to begin with. In 1990, when the system was put in place, they set the limit at 65,000 places a year, plus another 20,000 for people who were training in universities. That is 85,000. What it meant to be an innovation worker or a tech worker in 1990 is so fundamentally different compared to what it means now. Today, every company is a tech company. Everyone has to focus on innovation in the US. More and more we don’t compete for a price, we compete for innovation. That’s even true in manufacturing.

If you look at Caterpillar, their mining equipment has more lines of code than an airline jet. Everything is tech so we need tech talent. Also, 32 years ago, America was a dramatically smaller country. Now, we need more tech workers per capita. We need more workers because our economy is bigger but the immigration number has remained fixed. Every year with the H-1B entry point, you get upwards of 200,000 applications every year and it’s not like we look at them and say who are the best 85,000? We don’t have the resources to do that. That is why there is a lottery. One third of the people will get in and two thirds – who could be bringing the best idea to start and grow a company and create jobs – are sent elsewhere. 

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If you come here on a student visa, it is not a dual intent visa so the government makes visa holders swear before they receive it that they will return to their home countries afterwards. We train the smartest people in the world and then we just send them right home. There are options to stay called Optional Practical Training if you’re in STEM. That was extended under the Obama administration to be up to three years. Again, that visa is renewable once. So there are avenues to stay for a little bit longer for high skilled talent, but then it’s really hard to get an H-1B visa for all the reasons we talked about. 

Then you have the problem: how do you stay here for good? That’s where you have something called a Green Card, and there are Green Cards for people who have extraordinary abilities. It’s very unclear what that means? Who is that? And then their Green Cards for people who have other sorts of highly skilled talents where it’s not like you split the atom but you are an innovator. You’re smart. The problem is that we give out about a million Green Cards a year but only 140,000 of them go for employment reasons. Spouses and children count among that so it’s really about 70,000 a year for employment reasons. What ends up happening is that you get a huge backlogs because there aren’t enough places. Those backlogs are exacerbated tremendously by something that was put in place in 1965, which are these country caps. No country in the world can have more than 7% of our employment.

Can you give some examples of the effects the administrative backlogs have on STEM workers emigrating to the United States?

China and India collectively have a third of the world’s population. When it comes to highly skilled talents, they send a huge proportion of people here to our universities on H-1B’s, especially from India. You have a situation where you’re letting people [and even with a broken top of the funnel of the H1-B system. You’re letting people in on these temporary visas who we want to keep and have this path where they can apply for a green card. 

There is a bottleneck due to country caps. For example, if you’re getting your Green Card coming from India, you’re getting what’s called an EB-3 type green card, which is the third category of employment-based Green Cards. Your wait time could be roughly 10, 12, or 14 years. 

But if you’re coming on an H1-B from India, because of the bottlenecks that are building and building and building, your projected wait time is over 100 years to get your Green Card. It effectively means you will never get it. You can still stay and work but it becomes very hard to get promoted to a leadership position. You are in the position that, while you’re on an H1-B, a lot of the spouses have what is called an H4 visa. It does not allow them to work. 

Something similar happens with children. Because the backlogs have gone so long, we’re now in this bizarre situation where people come to the United States with a visa and they bring their children. They apply for a Green Card because we want to keep them but because of the Green Card backlog, the wait is so long that their children age out and lose their legal status. They have no way to stay here and the result is that there are hundreds of thousands (very hard to get the exact number) of children that are called documented dreamers. They are kids who are going to lose their status and have no way to be here. It’s a crazy system all around. 

There have been lots of efforts in Congress to fix the system – bipartisan efforts. They have not yet come to fruition. There have been efforts by the Obama administration and the Biden administration to figure out what can be done administratively to make it easier for H1-B’s coming into the country. 

I’ll give you one other example that has to do with STEM because a lot of people who work in STEM start businesses. There is no visa to come to America and start a company. It seems so counterintuitive. You’ve started a company and you’ve raised money. Investors are giving you a couple million dollars; you’ve hired 10 people; you’ve got an idea. It’s already working here. But there’s no visa for you to remain in the country. People end up trying to do all these workarounds. 

We think about all the ways that we have this great competitive advantage in the world. We have some of the greatest universities in the world. We have an incredible economy that privileges innovation and entrepreneurship. In the eyes of 95% of the world that doesn’t live in America, we are still the place that people want to go to the most and they will jump through hoops to get here. But we erect all these crazy barriers in our immigration system. Increasingly other countries have recognized that and have been changing their immigration policy to attract people who they know will come to the United States and want to come to the United States, but our policies are frustrating them.

Was the White House announcement about what they’re doing with STEM immigration influenced at all by the recent report from the National Science Foundation which basically said that STEM in America is being overtaken by China and that a good portion of actual research in the U.S. is conducted by foreign-born scientists?

I can’t speak to their motives in making the announcement. Like many things, when you’re doing policy and you’re involving the White House plus the State Department plus all sorts of other agencies that are going to be behind these initiatives, people come to things for a lot of different reasons. 

That there is a real belief in this administration that you want to invest in innovation, and that it is a competitive advantage for the United States that people want to come here. I think when you look at what they announced, all of those initiatives were really aimed at making America a more attractive and viable place for innovators. 

For example, under current STEM rules, you can’t be a data scientist because that doesn’t qualify for an H1-B visa. Data science is a huge thing and very important to all sorts of companies and organizations. It requires a technical knowledge of statistics and scientific methods in general. We have a world where you could study science, be at the top of your field, and you would not want to go work in data science because there was a mismatch in terms of what qualifies as STEM.

Let’s look at the J-1 visa categories for exchange programs. It is almost like foreign policy for the US. We want to use our soft power to spread the conversations that we’re having in the world to let people know about America and to make America know about the world. We are going to be a better country if we have those types of relationships around the world. The J visa is used all throughout the economy by summer camps and ski resorts. We also use them to bring doctors into the country. We used J-1 visas for business interns and trainees. In terms of STEM, we also use them for researchers. 

We’re getting all these smart people from around the world. They are almost exclusively going to American universities, which is great. We do a huge amount of early stage research at American universities. But the majority of our research in this country is done by companies. If you want an increasingly global world, if you want to invest in making our companies more innovative, you have to give them better networks around the world. You have to recognize that ideas happen in this from a global perspective. 

The J1 visa is really designed to bring more people to the United States early in their career, to come and be a part of American business in their research capacity. If they go back home, they’re going to have learned from American companies and we’re going to have learned from them and then we will have more trading partners. I’ve heard the White House describe it as the “Brain Train” – not brain drain. The Brain Train idea is that in this global economy, ideas are flowing both ways and you want to be part of that network if you want to innovate in the world.

Does President Biden’s plan essentially designed just to expand STEM categories that people can get into like data analytics?

It is about knocking down barriers that make immigration more accessible to more people who want to innovate. It ensures that there are 22 different and new STEM categories. If you were going to stay in the country after studying in university, you can stay in an OPT, or optional practical training. You get some real work experience there. It will expand the number of fields that allow people to stay. That is hugely beneficial. 

They also changed for the first time what’s called the national interest waiver. For a lot of the avenues to come to the US, there are all these requirements. According to the waiver, if you’re doing something in the national interest, those requirements get waived. To my understanding, it hasn’t been until now that research being in the national interest would be driving innovation and creating economic growth. But of course, that’s in the national interest. I think that that could be a big game changer if we do it. 

The last reform is to the exchange program, which is really about bringing American foreign policy to invest in American communities using that idea of exchange to bring over a whole series of new people. who maybe would have come here and ended up in university. Those people end up helping drive growth and innovation in American companies.

You touched on soft power and attracting high skilled workers to America. Like you said, it’s usually the top choice. But right now, things are a little uncertain here, socially and politically. Former President Trump had put in a lot of his own immigration reforms, many of which were exclusionary. How many have been walked back by the current White House?

The Biden Administration walked back a lot of the biggest barriers that President Trump’s administration erected, such as the travel bans and the Muslim ban, in particular. There is a huge amount of innovation that comes from Muslim majority countries and so think about all the people that are kept out because of that. President Biden got rid of those. 

There were a lot of things that President Trump’s administration tried to do to block or slow down high skilled immigration but never succeeded. They were very explicit as to their priorities.  They wanted to unwind programs that President Obama’s administration had implemented such as Optional Practical Training for STEM grads that allowed people who graduate from US universities with a STEM degree to extend the amount of time they could stay, train, and work with American companies. They were very explicit that it was going to be on the agenda to repeal; they never got that done. 

Similarly, President Obama expanded the number of spouses of high skilled workers who are on H-1 visas or on H-4 visas. President Obama expanded the number of them that were allowed to work in the country. The Trump Administration attempted to repeal that but was not successful.  

Another big thing Trump did was simply to ensure that there was a slow walk in processing visas, Green Cards in particular. Backlogs grew enormously under the Trump administration. It occurred in the processing of cases. There is something called a Request for Evidence, which says, we need more proof that you are qualified for a visa. Those requests skyrocketed under the Trump administration. A case that would normally be resolved pretty quickly and cheaply became much more expensive and took a lot longer. 

The USCIS processes visa applications. It is a fee-funded organization, so Congress appropriates very little money for it. They pay for their operational costs with the fees that the government imposes on people who use their services, who want to naturalize and want to get a Green Card. When you have the same fees coming in but cases taking much longer, it puts a huge strain on the budget of USCIS. 

Then when the pandemic happened and far less revenue came in. It was like death by 1000 cuts. Due to the pandemic, the number of immigrants who would have come into the country decreased, some estimates suggested as high as 2 million fewer applications. That in itself had a huge effect. 

What ended up happening when the Biden Administration came into office, the USCIS was processing about 2000 Green Cards a week. They needed to be processing a lot more than that. There were 140,000 Green Cards that I mentioned earlier that were actually extra because of a rollover. They ended up wasting about 80,000 Green Cards last year because it took them several months just to get into a place where they could get USCIS functioning quickly enough again to begin processing. It’s probably going to happen again this year. They’re likely to be unable to get through as many applications because they’re still rebuilding the whole infrastructure at USCIS. I think a lot of the things that the Biden Administration has wanted to do in terms of immigration are complicated by the rebuilding effort.

Can the next administration just revert back to Trump era policies like slow walking the process and supporting the USCIS? Is there anything to stop that from happening?

One of the lessons the Trump years taught us is that even when something is your number one priority, and you’re putting all your resources into it, it’s actually harder to carry out than you think. 

For example, the fact they wanted to and put in research to repeal the Obama STEM OPT rule, they could not. They could not repeal the H-4 rule that let high skilled spouses work. They actually never even got around to really delaying the implementation. 

But there was a rule that President Obama put in on his last day in office that didn’t go into effect. The Trump Administration just said, “Okay, we’ll keep delaying and we won’t let it go into effect.” They didn’t repeal it. The rule would have made it easier for immigrant entrepreneurs to come here and get what’s called “parole” as an avenue for them to come and start their businesses here because as I mentioned, there’s no visa to start a business. 

When President Biden came in, he turned that rule right back on. So certainly, if you are doing things by the executive order and by rulemaking, it is much easier to unwind than if the changes were done by Congress. I think that certainly anything that President Biden is doing, he is vulnerable. But it’s not that the next president has the right to do it, but they have to give a good reason. 

When President Trump tried to unwind DACA, he had the authority to unwind the program. He just couldn’t do it for illegitimate reasons. 

But yes, if there is a new administration that is hostile to immigration or high skilled immigration, in particular, could they start erecting barriers again? Absolutely. That’s why I think it’s a real priority to get Congress to act. 

The other thing I will say is that it’s really hard to move a huge bureaucracy that is accustomed to doing something a certain way. USCIS, like all agencies, is a humongous agency. There are a lot of people who are processing these cases. An administration might come into office and they might have priorities but getting those priorities to be reflected in reality on the ground with the people who are processing cases is much harder. 

The reality of today’s political climate doesn’t make it easier to make immigration reform easier. There are certain things going on that destroy the image of the United States being welcoming for immigrants. For example, the China Initiative can be problematic. You can where the government is coming from because industrial and scientific espionage does. However, it’s nothing new. By creating an atmosphere of uncertainty among Asian researchers it seems like they’re sort of shooting themselves in the foot. It’s just hitting too many innocent people. Can you just talk about that?

I mentioned the country caps earlier. They create these huge bottlenecks. Almost overwhelmingly, people in Congress recognized that as a problem and that we shouldn’t have 100 year wait times.

There was a bill that passed out of the house with bipartisan support. It went to the Senate but it’s really hard to get floor time. There was an attempt to move it by unanimous consent and modified several ways. A different version ended up passing to the Senate and they were never able to reconcile it. We came very close but couldn’t finish it. When it went to the Senate, one of the amendments that got added to it was an amendment directly targeting China and that became a poison pill to some degree in the bill, and made it really hard to pass the reconciles by house upon bills. So you’re 100% right, that this notion of fear about Chinese competition and theft of intellectual property is animating and complicated. 

There is one thing I will say about the purely political climate, though. Immigration is a strange issue, because in some ways, you need to have a difficult political climate to force the conversation. You need to pass immigration reform. What I mean by that is we’re coming into an election year where immigrants are going to be a huge part of the election. Immigration is going to be used as a weapon. Politicians are really afraid about touching it and talking about it. The conventional wisdom is that you can’t pass an immigration bill in an election year, because it’s so toxic that it is this third rail and it’s so hard to talk about it. 

If you look back, though, in the last 40 years, every single major immigration bill has passed in an election year. President Reagan’s bill that gave legal status to 3 million undocumented immigrants, the biggest bill passed in the last 40 years was passed in 1986, a midterm election year. The H-1B system we’re talking about passed in the 1990 election year. The most punitive immigration bill we’ve passed in 40 years was in 1996. That was a presidential election year. There’s no fiscal cliff on immigration. There is no moment where, if we don’t do it, things are gonna fall apart. 

It’s very easy to kick the can down the road and not have a hard conversation. It’s not that I think it’s easier to do during an election year. I don’t. But what you need is a moment that forces a real discussion. As hard as I think that China conversations are, some of those make immigration, they also force conversations on immigration. It’s not an issue that sort of moves linearly; it moves in fits and start. Sometimes we have windows and sometimes we don’t. If we ever could get to a vote, there’s broad agreement on what we have to do, on immigration, generally, but particularly on high skilled immigration.

From 1990 until today, STEM immigration has doubled. Do you see that trend continuing without reforms are the reforms necessary to keep that trend going?

I think undoubtedly, our STEM economy will keep going. Just the demand for STEM workers among American companies is enormous. We’re simply not getting Americans to study STEM in sufficient numbers. The long term solution is we needed to create a real homegrown pipeline of STEM workers. 

Right now, STEM majors are increasing less than 1% a year for native born STEM students. We’re just not producing enough in a world where our economy is getting bigger. We have more jobs, we can’t fill, especially in certain parts of the country. If you can’t fill the STEM job, a whole division doesn’t open or there’s not a new product and you don’t get the support teams around it. There are a huge number of jobs that we can and want to fill with American workers that we can’t because we can’t get the right STEM worker. We need to invest heavily and get more Americans to study STEM. 

In the meantime, we need to create avenues that foster more STEM immigration because right now, we’re not going to get as many as we need. That will result in greater STEM worker shortages because as long as we are erecting barriers.

If you could live in Vancouver doing the same job and you can get a Green Card right away or you could live in Seattle, a couple hours away, but you can’t get a Green Card and you’ll be in limbo for decades, a lot of people are going to start choosing to be in Vancouver, right? You can see it happening already. If we don’t fix our system, we’re not going to be able to meet the demand in any real way. In turn, that will have huge costs for the economy as a whole but also for American jobs.

Finally, how has President Biden done so far in terms of his immigration campaign promises?

I think the Biden Administration came in and set an incredibly different tone on immigration. They came in on day one, and they made it a priority. They started putting up executive actions. They’ve done real things like getting rid of the public charge rule. They’ve done a whole government approach to try and make our immigration system work. They quickly introduced a comprehensive immigration bill. I think all of those are positive. 

But now we’re a year in and while they’ve found some real successes, they’ve also had a huge amount of frustration. We are still in a world where the processing backlogs are longer than they’ve ever been. Reform is stalled in Congress. They’ve continued some of the most harmful policies of the Trump Administration like closing the border because of COVID and forcing people who have a legitimate claim to asylum to wait in Mexico. Sometimes, they did that by a court order. Sometimes they did it by choice, depending on the different programs. 

Our consular system is not up and running. It’s really hard to get interviews in most parts of the world. Cases are taking longer. Backlogs are getting longer. There’s a huge amount that remains to be done. 

Still, it is a very, very different orientation than the Trump Administration. The Biden White House has expressed an interest in making America a more welcoming place and expanding the avenues to come here and be part of this country. I certainly appreciate that. But in a huge way our system continues to be in need of modernization at almost every stage of the immigration process.


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