A United States green card. Photo: iStock

The US House of Representatives has passed, and the Senate appears close to passing, legislation that will change the manner in which immigrants apply for green cards (permanent residency) based on employment. Currently, there are country quotas, and the backlog can be many years, sometimes more than a decade, for people from certain countries, India being the worst. According to the House bill (HR 1044), after a transition period the per-country quota will be eliminated; however, the bill does not increase the number of green cards issued yearly. Hence, while the backlog will be greatly cleared for some countries, waiting times for other countries will increase, in some cases dramatically.

There are three basic immigration categories for technically skilled immigrants. Category EB-1 is for priority workers in three subcategories: (a) persons of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics, who have sustained national/international recognition; (b) outstanding professors and researchers with a minimum of three years’ international recognition, and (c) executives and managers.

Category EB-2 is for professionals with (a) advanced degrees beyond the baccalaureate degree and a minimum of five years of professional experience, and (b) persons with exceptional ability significantly above average in their fields.

Category EB-3 is for professionals holding a baccalaureate degree, skilled workers, and unskilled workers.

These categories have different yearly quotas (as of 2018): 40,040 for EB-1 and EB-2, and 35,040 for EB-3. The problem being addressed by the House and Senate is clearly seen in the wait lists: 141,373 for EB-1, 463,027 for EB-2, and 127,997 for EB-3. The major problem is with category EB-2, for which the current backlog is more than a decade.

Dropping the country quotas, and assuming that the overall quotas remain approximately the same, will not shrink the wait list. Indeed, the list will continue to grow with increasing employment of immigrants. This is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The United States needs talent. This means that the government should eliminate long waiting times. How that is done is practically of little interest, so long as the changes are designed to attract international talent. This means significantly increasing the overall quota. It is not important as to which country the talent comes from – China, India, Korea, Iran, etc – but this means that the system should not impose long waiting times on immigrants from any country.

Beyond an overall increase, in my opinion the major issue is with Category EB-2, particularly those persons with exceptional talent (a similar argument can be applied to Category EB-1, but the problem there is less severe). Of the groups within EB-2, the “exceptionally talented” group is crucial for profound innovation. Moreover, within this group the critical concern is with those possessing the ability to make fundamental contributions to science and engineering.

Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel has repeatedly emphasized that while there has been much progress in computation over the last half-century, the US has stagnated in science and engineering. If there are going to be quotas, then they need to favor fields that provide the knowledge necessary for major advances: mathematics (including computational theory), physics, systems biology, electrical engineering (in particular, areas relating to the theory of autonomous systems), and statistics (and here I mean serious statistics, not data mining).

These are fields where graduate programs in the US are dominated by foreign nationals, in excess of 80% in many cases. We need the best to come to the US and to stay. Any professional quotas that exist should be prioritized for these fields, and to particular disciplines within them.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that there should be no waiting period for PhD graduates who have done exemplary research in areas critical for major breakthroughs. Such students are in demand worldwide. We need to attract them and provide resources so they can immediately apply their talent to accomplish consequential achievements in energy, materials, medicine, aeronautics, artificial intelligence, and other areas of major significance. It is not attractive to have to wait five or 10 years to apply for a green card upon completing the PhD.

A legitimate objection can be raised to the fast-tracking of exceptional young international talent: it would limit the opportunities for American citizens. Since the overall number of people in the exceptional class to which I refer is relatively small – and here I limit it to those in the 0.1 percentile for mathematical ability – it might appear that fast-tracking would not greatly impact the career potential of US citizens in the same group. But, in fact, under current conditions it would.

As it stands, there is insufficient funding for fundamental research in America’s top graduate schools. The situation is even worse upon graduating, where many exceptional researchers must take positions where they must perform inferior work to make a living, be it in academia, industry or government. This is a common complaint. Were the government to fast-track top foreign students and thereby increase their number staying the US, this would reduce the opportunities for citizens. In fact, one might ask why we need more exceptional talent if we don’t make use of what we already have.

While the issue is legitimate, it is artificial. Stagnation has in great measure been due to the federal government’s de-emphasizing fundamental research, as manifested by the lack of funding. It could reverse course and return to the policy of the 1950s and 1960s, after which stagnation set in. The implementation of such a policy could be accomplished exactly as then. Revitalize the national laboratories and subsidize industry to carry out basic research related to their business objectives (ideas having been advanced by David Goldman). Talent could be attracted by long-term commitments to basic science and engineering, and by competitive salaries.

The ground would be laid by significantly increasing funding for fundamental work to university faculty with demonstrated capability for carrying out such research, including recent PhDs, and who mentor outstanding students (in that 0.1 percentile). Exceptional students would be attracted by exciting world-class research – and US$40,000 stipends, as opposed to the paltry $25,000 stipends common today.

With such a radical policy shift, the 1950s and 1960s would be reborn, but now with the world as the talent pool. This increase in funding for basic research could be entirely paid for by eliminating funding for inherently insignificant pursuits having, at best, little scientific content, and by not funding students lacking true research capability.

Accomplishing these goals would not be easy. It would mean replacing academic entrepreneurs with scientists and engineers. Many who have made their success in the current environment would lose out. It would take very strong leadership at the top. I have discussed related issues in “The American crisis in science and engineering” and “The decline of American science and engineering.”

I would recommend to President Donald Trump two changes to the current legislation before signing. First, insist on an increase in overall quotas. Second, include in the legislation the formation of a commission of top scientists and engineers – and I don’t mean government and university bureaucrats – to formulate a policy that would accomplish the changes discussed herein.

Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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