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A Nation At Risk: Immigration And National Security

by Gary Endelman

While Congress and the media focus on the problem of illegal immigration, a far more significant story is playing out with profound implications for America's future. The national security of the United States depends upon our competitive edge in science and technology. If we lose that, not only will America be unable to act as a global superpower in defense of key strategic interests, but also the fundamental underpinnings of our national economy will be seriously eroded. No nation can protect itself or preserve its allies without the economic vitality that makes a robust military possible. While immigration, by itself, is not nearly enough, it is, or can be if properly deployed, a powerful ingredient in a comprehensive program of national preparedness to keep Uncle Sam on top in the flat world of the 21st century.


Congress, not surprisingly, is thinking about other things, namely money. The Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate are trying to come up with $60 million in savings for FY 2006 as part of a larger budget reconciliation package that will be reported to their respective Budget Committees later this month. Under the leadership of Representative James Sensenbrenner ( R-Wisc), the House Judiciary Committee voted to impose a $1500 training fee on initial L-1 petitions and first extensions, precisely as is now done with H-1B submissions. By contrast, the Senate Judiciary Committee recently increased the annual cap on H-1B visa numbers by up to 30,000 over a 10-year period in return for payment of a new $500 fee on these visas in addition to current fees.  Senators Arlen Specter ( R-PA) and Patrick Leahy ( D-VT), the Chair and Ranking Democrat of the Senate Judiciary Committee respectively, originally sought some 60,000 per year  recaptured H visas over this same term in the hope of generating $300 million in revenue. To make up for the shortfall, the Senate Judiciary Committee accepted an union-inspired amendment from Senator Dianne Feinstein ( D-CAL) that levied a $750 fee on L applications.  Senator Spector did shepherd through the Committee his proposal to make available 90,000 employment-based immigrant visas that were unused in past years due to processing delays with applicants ponying up a $500 supplemental petition fee. Whether these new fees will be adopted by the full Senate, or survive a conference with the House of Representatives,  is very much of an open question [ Editor's note: this article was written before the Senate floor vote on S.1932 ]. We do not know the extent to which such fees will close the yawning budget deficit that Congress adds to every day it is in session.  What is worth noting is the fact that both advocates and opponents of immigration realize that it is a core feature of our national life, one not likely to go away anytime soon. Indeed, so important is immigration that it has now become something we seek to tax to fill the national coffers. Such a proposal would have been unthinkable in years past when immigration was relegated to the fringes of policy debate on Capitol Hill.


Immigration is more than a source of potential new revenue.  A panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, in response to a bipartisan request, thinks that immigration can be used to promote new discoveries in science and technology that will serve to enrich the nation and protect it against enemies, foreign and domestic. That was one of the recommendations published in a very recent report by the National Academies entitled Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Jeff Bingaman ( D-NM) asked the

National Academies to answer the following question: " What are the top 10 actions... that federal policy makers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper and be secure in the global community of the 21st Century?" Why the question, you ask? Are we not the world's leader in science and technology? Yes, but the tealeaves are not encouraging. Consider some of the sobering findings in the report whose full text is available at :

  • For the first time, the most powerful high-energy particle accelerator in the world will, as of 2007, not have an American address.
  • America today has become a net importer of high technology. Our share of global high tech exports has fallen like a stone over the past 20 years from 30% to 17%, while our high tech trade balance went from a $33 billion surplus in 1990 to a $24 billion deficit in 2004. The dollar value of high tech exports in 2004 was $511 billion, while our high tech imports during this same period cost $560 billion.
  • Chemical companies shut the doors on 70 plants in the USA in 2004 with 40 more slated for mothballs. Of the 120 chemical plants now under construction worldwide with price tags of $1 billion +, only one is in the United States. Guess how many in China? 50. "No Longer The Lab of the World: US chemical plants are closing in droves as production heads abroad," Business Week ( May 2, 2005)
  • In 2003, only 3 American companies placed in the top 10 recipients of patents granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
  • In Germany, 36% of undergraduates earned degrees in science and engineering; in China, the figure soared to 59%. What about us? A dismal 32%. In 2004, China graduated over 600,000 engineers, India 350,000 and America roughly 70,000.
  • In 2001, the most recent year for which we have solid data, US businesses spent more on tort litigation ( about $205 billion) than research and development ( about $184 billion)
Much of what the National Academies’ report tells us is not news. Rather, it serves to reinforce what we already know. In his most recent book entitled The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Friedman explains that digitally speaking we are no longer the only game in town. We learn this from many things. Graduate enrollment of Americans in science and engineering peaked in 1993 and remains today below the levels of a decade ago. The federal budget for FY 2005 cuts the funding for the National Science Foundation by 1.9% or $105 million. That same year, a Task Force on the Future of American Innovation found that federal dollars for research in physical and mathematical sciences and engineering, as a share of the global domestic product, actually dropped by 37% between 1970 and 2004.  The only reason that America has the scientists and engineers it needs today is because of immigration. According to a 2004 report by the National Science Board entitled Science and Engineerng Indicators, the percentage of foreign-born students earning PhD degrees at American universities soared from 24% in 1990 to 38% today. This might not last for long. On December 21, 2004, the New York Times reported that applications by foreign students to US graduate programs plummeted by 28% this year; enrollment of foreign students on all levels of American higher education declined for the first time in 30 years; Chinese applications alone fell by 45% at a time when several European nations announced a sharp rise in Chinese enrollment. Tom Friedman echoes the National Academies sad findings when he reminds us that, precisely at a time when the Japanese and Chinese share of industrial patents is going up, the American slice of the patent pie is shrinking- down from 60% in 1980 to only 52% today. Since American kids do not regard science and technology as an attractive career choice, the only way to prevent further slippage is to expand the pipeline of very smart people coming to the United States and make sure that they stay here. How can we do that?

The National Academies have a way to attract and retain the world's best scientific and engineering talent. Among their many other recommendations to develop home-grown talent, they advocate the following: "Provide a 1-year automatic visa extension to international students who receive doctorates or the equivalent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or other fields of national need at qualified US institutions to remain in the United States to seek employment. If these students are offered jobs by United States-based employers and pass a security screening test, they should be provided automatic work permits and expedited residence status. If students are unable to obtain employment within 1 year, their visas would expire." The intent is clear- every PhD in the listed disciplines is important to this nation and their continued presence here is, by definition, manifestly in our national interest. They should be able to get green card status not withstanding visa retrogression that has now backlogged so many employment-based categories, particularly from China and India, but soon for all graduate degree holders regardless of nationality. No labor certification or any national interest waiver petition should be required. This is a pre-determined national need, much as Schedule A nurses and physical therapists currently are. What about the budget shortfall that is now so worrisome to Congress? Can we relate these two national needs? We can. Instead of seeking to generate tax dollars by imposing visa fees on H or L petitions, which serves either to penalize employers, discourage them from visa sponsorship, or both, there is a better way: Impose a 10% surcharge on the first year salary of all green card applicants who earn their permanent status after getting the PhD sheepskin. This will actually bring in more dollars without having a punitive effect on employers. While the individual will not relish having to make such payment, it is, all things considered, a minor inconvenience when compared with the ability to conduct cutting-edge research and create the world of tomorrow in their country of choice.

The strongest rationale for more employment-based immigration in science and technology is not what it does for business or for the aliens themselves, but the fact that it makes America stronger, safer and more secure in a very dangerous world. The conclusion to the National Academies report reminds us that we are no longer the unchallenged king of the hill and urges action, while there is still time:


It is easy to be complacent about US competitiveness in science and technology. We have led the world for decades, and we continue to do so today. But the

world is changing rapidly, and our advantages are no longer unique. Without a renewed effort to bolster the foundations of our competitiveness, we can expect to

            lose our privileged position.


A targeted immigration policy, one that works in harmony with our economy and serves to provide America with the scientific and technical brains on which our entire way of life depends, ensures that America will be able to capitalize in full measure when opportunities present themselves. It is more than that. It is an expression of renewed commitment to the nation's security and also a way to keep faith with our parents and grandparents whose hard work and sacrifice made our present prosperity possible. That is the least we owe to them and to our children.

About The Author

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.

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