President’s Immigration Order is Latest in a Series Vexing Computing Research Community

[This article will also appear in CRA’s Computing Research News.]

On Monday, June 22nd, President Trump issued the latest in a series of immigration and visa related orders designed to limit the involvement of foreign students and researchers, particular those from mainland China, in U.S. research efforts. The order follows a series of other proposals and orders emanating from the White House and Capitol Hill that have raised the ire of higher-education, U.S. industry, and the computing research community over recent weeks. The proposals — two proclamations, Senate legislation and bicameral legislation — all have the stated goals of protecting U.S. jobs from foreign competition or protecting U.S. research from foreign exploitation, but in CRA’s analysis would likely do more damage to the U.S. research ecosystem than the threats they are trying to address.

The President’s most recent order is a Presidential proclamation that directs U.S. immigration officials on June 24th to suspend issuing new H-1B, H-2B, J- series, L series, and other non-immigrant visas through the end of 2020. The President justified the move as a way to protect U.S. workers during this time of increased unemployment as a result of the COVID pandemic. This case is problematic, CRA has noted, because employment in the computing sector has actually increased during the pandemic, with unemployment falling from a pre-pandemic level of 3.0 percent to 2.8 percent as of April 30th (as compared to an overall unemployment level of nearly 15 percent). Notably, the President’s proclamation did not suspend the F-1 visa program used by most foreign graduate students in the US, or curtail the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program or the OPT STEM program, which allow F-1 visa holders to stay an additional year or three years respectively to get training in their study areas after graduation.

The move has earned considerable ire from the U.S. business community, particularly the high-tech sector, which uses the H-1B program to bring in high-skilled talent from around the world. Those in the computing sector note that even with the H-1B program, more than 625,000 computing-related jobs (those that would require a 4 year computing degree) remain unfilled at the present time. The President appears unmoved, however, believing the order to be the fulfillment of a campaign promise and a vote-winner.

Earlier, the President had issued another order directed at protecting U.S. research from exploitation by the Chinese government. On May 29th, he issued a Presidential Proclamation that suspended the issuing of visas for students and researchers from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) wishing to come to the U.S. if it is determined that they have ever been involved with any entity participating in the PRC’s “military-civil fusion strategy.” CRA opposed the proclamation. While we recognize that there are certainly real threats to U.S. research from foreign actors — the recent news that 54 scientists funded by the NIH have lost their jobs and some face criminal charges for failing to disclose financial ties to foreign governments emphasizes this fact — indiscriminate large-scale banning of students and researchers from any particular country is likely to be counter-productive and deprive the U.S. research enterprise of the important contributions of international scholars.

On June 1st, CRA issued a statement opposing the proclamation which read:

The President on Friday issued a proclamation effective today ordering the suspension of entry to the U.S. of Chinese non-immigrant graduate students or scholars who have ever studied, received support, been employed by, or conducted research at or on behalf of any Chinese entity that may have implemented China’s “military-civil fusion strategy.” The proclamation defines “military-civil fusion strategy” as “actions by or at the behest of the [People’s Republic of China] to acquire and divert foreign technologies, specifically critical and emerging technologies, to incorporate into and advance the PRC’s military capabilities.”

We are aware and concerned that research in the United States is a target for espionage agents and others intent on stealing — rather than licensing — valuable intellectual property. We are also aware that some countries have been particularly aggressive about such theft in recent years. We support restrictions for people with clear connections to IP theft or espionage.

However, we oppose the banning of any foreign student or researcher unless there is clear evidence of their personal connection to such activities. Indiscriminate large-scale banning of students and researchers from any particular country deprives the U.S. research enterprise of contributions by international scholars, most of whom are not involved in IP theft or espionage.

The U.S. remains the world’s leading economy and maintains the world’s strongest defense because of an innovation ecosystem that is powered by a research enterprise that attracts the brightest minds and best ideas from all over the world. The broad scope of this proclamation has already created great uncertainty and fear among Chinese scholars who are here and contributing to U.S. leadership. It will most certainly discourage future international scholars from choosing the U.S. for their studies and research careers, depriving the U.S. of their talents and energy. We urge the Administration to immediately clarify the scope of the order and limit it to those cases where there is clear evidence of personal connection to espionage and IP theft.

While the White House was working to put out this proclamation, a parallel effort was underway to make additional immigration policy changes around the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program — an effort that ultimately led to the issuance of the June 22nd proclamation. On May 29th, CRA issued a statement to state its opposition to efforts to suspend or end the program:

We are aware of efforts in both the Administration and Congress aimed at suspending or curtailing the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program for students on F-1 visas in the United States. As an organization representing more than 200 PhD- or research-focused computing departments in North America, eight leading industrial computing research labs, and six affiliated professional societies in the computing fields with a combined membership of over 200,000, we strongly oppose any efforts to limit or end the OPT program, which plays an important role in keeping some of the world’s best talent in the U.S., working and innovating in the U.S. economy.

The argument given for ending the program now — prioritizing U.S. workers over foreign talent given the overall high levels of unemployment in the economy — does not make sense when applied to the computing fields. In January 2020, prior to the impact of the COVID pandemic, unemployment in the computing fields was at 3.0 percent, a figure generally considered “full employment.” By April 2020, when the impacts of the pandemic forced overall unemployment up to 15 percent, unemployment in the computing fields actually dropped to 2.8 percent, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey data by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP). An analysis by NFAP of Active Job Postings in Computing Occupations amplifies this point, noting that between April 14 and May 13, 2020, there were more than 625,000 active vacancies in jobs that require at least a bachelor’s degree in computing. The OPT program is not harming U.S. computing workers, and importantly, jobs in computing cannot be filled by workers transitioning from non-technical fields without significant retraining that can span multiple years.

Suspending or curtailing the OPT program would destroy a key pathway for many of our best foreign students to contribute to U.S. innovation. Indeed, our innovation ecosystem — that extraordinarily productive interplay between U.S. research universities, industrial and federal research labs, and the people and ideas that flow between them — depends on a great majority of those foreign-born degree recipients deciding to stay and continue their work in the U.S. According to the National Science Foundation, 72 percent of foreign born STEM graduates stay employed in the U.S. for at least 10 years after graduation. But, uncertainty around the status of the OPT program threatens to upend that trend. Foreign students attending our schools now and intending to use the program to complete their graduate education and help find more permanent employment in the U.S. are increasingly likely to seek employment elsewhere, either in their homeland or in countries more open to highly skilled foreign talent.

Ending or suspending OPT (and the associated Curricular Practical Training (CPT) program) would not only damage the current cohort of foreign graduate students studying in the U.S. and hoping to stay. The availability of the pathway that the OPT program provides is a huge incentive to the best foreign graduate students deciding whether or not to study in the U.S. Any uncertainty around the program, especially in light of uncertainty about the status of other aspects of U.S. immigration and visa policy, is likely to discourage many students from applying to U.S. institutions at all, providing a new advantage to economies in other parts of the world who will gladly welcome their talents.

We agree that Federal pandemic response efforts should be prioritized towards aiding U.S. workers and others in the U.S. affected by COVID. However, efforts to curtail or suspend the OPT program will not achieve that goal. Instead, those efforts will cause great harm to an innovation ecosystem that continues to be a crucial part of our recovery effort. We strongly oppose any effort to end the program.

CRA is not alone in opposing efforts to curb the program. The higher education and scientific community, led by organizations like the Association of American Universities (AAU), Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU), and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has weighed in with the White House, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of State opposing the rumored new rules. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a strong voice for U.S. industry in Washington also sent a strong opposition to the policy. And 21 Republican Members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf urging them ensure the OPT program continues this Fall. Those efforts appear to have had success in keeping the OPT programs and F-1 visas out of the June 22nd order.

But that sentiment is not shared by all Republican Members of Congress. Four Republican Senators — Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Josh Hawley (R-MO) — sent a letter to President Trump urging him to suspend the OPT program along with a number of other non-immigrant visa categories. Senators Cotton and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), along with Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN) have pushed the matter even further with the introduction of bicameral legislation called the SECURE CAMPUS Act that would, in order to protect U.S. universities from “espionage,” bar “PRC nationals from receiving student or research visas to the United States for graduate or post-graduate studies in STEM fields.”

On June 18th, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Chair of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a group of other bipartisan sponsors introduced S. 3997, the “Safeguarding American Innovation Act,” which also seeks to limit foreign exploitation – specifically Chinese exploitation – of the U.S. higher-education community. The bill places limitations of foreign educational and cultural exchanges, criminalizes failure to disclose foreign sources of funding for U.S. grant recipients, and creates a new intergovernmental “Federal Research Security Council” chaired by the White House Office of Management and Budget that would help create a uniform grant application process across all agencies and set guidance on how to determine what research is in the “economic or national security interest of the U.S.” and how to protect it. Though the bill does not have companion in the House – and would be unlikely to move as-is there in any case – there is sufficient bipartisan support for the bill in the Senate that it is possible that some of its provisions could find their way in other pieces of legislation that will move. CRA will continue to monitor progress.

While S. 3997 is unlikely to move in the House, and the SECURE CAMPUS Act is not likely to see much movement in either the House or the Senate, both demonstrate that there remains a cohort in Congress that does not understand or appreciate the significance of the intellectual contribution of foreign students and research to U.S.-based research enterprises. As an organization representing the computing research community, CRA will continue to make the case for the importance to the nation of attracting the best minds in the world to our shores, and the importance of maintaining a free and open fundamental research enterprise. We will continue to track these bills and others like them that threaten to distort or damage that fundamental research ecosystem, which has been the driver of so much of the innovation that has helped ensure U.S. competitiveness and its world-leading position in computing. Keep an eye on CRA’s Computing Research Policy Blog or on CRA’s Twitter (@CRATweets) for continuing updates!

President’s Immigration Order is Latest in a Series Vexing Computing Research Community