Washington Post: Immigration Reform & National Security

High-tech innovation is an engine of growth in virtually every sector of our economy: from agriculture to transportation, computers to medical devices and pharmaceuticals. Lest we forget, it’s also vital to our national security. That’s the take-home message from a recent Washington Post commentary by Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which lobbies on behalf of its 2,000-plus members in Washington. [See How Immigration Reform Could Boost our National Defense, by Gary Shapiro, Washington Post, 21.Mar.2014.]

Although Mr. Shapiro represents consumer electronics companies, he recognizes a key interest his industry shares with the American defense establishment: both depend heavily on imported brainpower to stay ahead of the competition. This, Mr. Shapiro cogently argues, makes immigration reform imperative:

“Too often we take for granted that the United States has the world’s most sophisticated communications, weaponry and aerospace technology and equipment. When we lose STEM students, we lose access to their future innovations. Sending top STEM talent away based on outdated immigration laws may actually be putting us in danger.”

Mr. Shapiro points to the high percentage of foreign students enrolled in STEM-related graduate education here, noting that the U.S. government invests heavily in training them, only to “kick them out of the country,” once they graduate. One especially sobering statistic: the National Science Foundation gives universities $6 billion a year to fund STEM research, much of it, Shapiro says, “spent on research conducted by these foreign students.” He asks: why waste all that money and talent? Why not make it easier to keep the brightest foreign students here?

These are pressing questions, desperately in need of serious attention from Congress, and not just for the reasons Mr. Shapiro outlines. It’s true that, from a national security standpoint, it’s critically important to hold onto the foreign-born high-tech talent we’ve invested in so heavily. No argument there – but at the risk of stating the obvious: these people are more than the sum of their technical skills. In addition to their STEM credentials, they bring an insider’s understanding of the languages, customs, history, religions, and politics of their homelands – knowledge that’s at a premium in defense and foreign policy circles.

That said, the cultural capital they bring to our nation is invaluable in its own right, for reasons that transcend its value to our defense and foreign policy establishment. In a world that’s getting smaller by the day, cultural insularity is a luxury we can ill afford. The better we understand the people with whom we share this planet, the more secure will be our place in the world – and we’ll live in a country that’s all the richer for its diversity!

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