top of page
Shaun Ee 2020.01 cropped.jpeg


Essay Contest Winner

​Shaun is a Master of Economics (China Studies) student at Peking University's Yenching Academy and a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a BA in International and Area Studies and Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology, and before returning to Asia, was assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative in Washington, D.C. He is from Singapore, with research interests at the intersection of tech, geopolitics, and national security.

Student, Worker, Researcher, Spy: 

How To Retain the U.S.’s Top Immigrant Talent 

By Shaun Ee

Yenching Academy of Peking University


To safeguard the United States’ preeminence as the destination for global talent, the U.S. first needs to restore its democracy.


Throughout its history, the United States has benefited enormously from immigration. Just look at the Nobel Prize: in physics, chemistry, and medicine, immigrants have won 35% of the U.S.’s prizes from 1901 to 2020, or 37% since 2000. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. By some measures, immigrants also make up 52% of doctorate holders and 29% of the college-educated workforce in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), and account for 25% of new firms and patents. 


Logically, it seems that the U.S.’s national competitiveness would best be boosted by massively increasing immigration, especially for high-skilled STEM workers. Yet under the Trump administration, immigrants came under attack—not only lower-skilled immigrants, who also contribute considerably to the U.S., but high-skilled STEM researchers as well. Amongst high-skilled STEM workers, Chinese nationals have come in for the brunt of this criticism, which, though it touches on real issues, is wound up heavily with xenophobia. 


Here, the worry is that openness to foreign talent is a double-edged sword. While high-skilled workers remain in the country, U.S. universities and companies reap the benefits, but when these workers depart for home, they take some of the U.S.’s knowhow with them. 

But policymakers should not mistake prophecy for fact. The flight of these high-skilled workers is not preordained, and appropriate interventions in the immigration pathway can help prevent it. As it stands, the U.S.’s immigration system expressly encourages talent flight, because there are too many students and too few ways for them to stay on. The Biden administration should expand pathways for talent retention, while delicately and precisely targeting national security concerns. 


Before talking about this problem generally, it is worth honing in on one subset—national security and China. 

The charge levied against Chinese nationals is that they are part of a massive economic espionage campaign to hoover up knowledge from U.S. universities. To counter this, the Trump administration launched a “China Initiative” to investigate economic espionage, limited visas for Chinese STEM students, and even rescinded over 1,000 individuals’ visas for alleged links to China’s military. Several politicians—most prominently Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)—have also joined the fray, proposing extraordinary initiatives such as a ban on all Chinese STEM students studying in the U.S. 


To be clear, Chinese economic espionage is a real problem for the United States. But several of these initiatives risk major collateral damage, and Cotton’s proposal for a comprehensive ban is like using a grenade launcher to perform brain surgery. DC-based think tank CSIS counts only 152 publicly reported cases of Chinese espionage since 2000, less than ten a year. By contrast, in 2018, 33% of international students in the U.S. were Chinese, or over 400,000. Broadly targeting Chinese students risks catching innocents in the crossfire, and also risks deterring talented workers from staying in the U.S.


Even leaving moral considerations aside, this would be an enormous “own goal.” Chicago-based think tank Macro Polo has charted the movement of top-tier AI researchers, showing that current patterns heavily favor the U.S. Of these top-tier researchers, 59% are U.S.-based, and only 11% are China-based. Yet, barely a third of U.S.-based researchers are actually from the U.S.; the rest hail from elsewhere, like China. China actually contributes so strongly to United States AI research that, if the U.S. kicked all Chinese students out and they went home, the number of top-tier AI students in the U.S. would drop by a staggering 32%, while the number of top-tier students in China would triple. 

This means that President Biden should wield solutions like scalpels, not chainsaws, mindful not to alienate potential contributors to the U.S. economy. Such solutions, in fact, might not even depend on the immigration system. Instead of wholesale visa denials, Biden could use existing, more targeted mechanisms, such as reinforcing university compliance with export controls governing knowledge transfer to international researchers. He should furthermore aim for the greatest clarity possible on what fields of study are off-limits. The expansive nature of economic espionage makes this difficult to do, but a good-faith effort will help reassure innocent Chinese nationals that they will not be indiscriminately targeted.



Beyond economic espionage, however, there is a larger and more difficult question: what to do about STEM researchers departing the U.S., whose transfer of expertise to their home countries is perfectly legal, but still undesirable? 

As countries like China and India develop, it becomes easier for them to recapture talent lost to brain drain. The return rate of Chinese nationals studying abroad was 78% in 2018—a sharp increase from the 31% rate of 2007, and many times the 5% rate of 1987. Nowadays in China, stories abound of haigui—overseas returnees—pioneering new startups, like Pinduoduo’s Colin Huang. Should the U.S. accept fewer international students, lest it hemorrhage STEM knowhow on their return?


This is misleading: the solution is not to narrowly focus on U.S. education, but rather to look beyond, and strengthen the student-to-workplace pipeline. Right now, the U.S.’s work regulations increasingly, and counterproductively, encourage students to return home after they complete their studies. Policymakers should focus not on attracting (or repelling) students—but on retaining them. 

There are three main parts to an international student’s path to citizenship. First, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) period, an extension of F-1 student visa status that lasts up to three years for STEM students. Second, the H-1B visa, a temporary working visa that is relatively restrictive and employer-linked. And third, the green card itself, coveted for its lack of employment and movement restrictions relative to the H-1B.

Reform should focus first on expanding the pool of employment-based green cards, and then second the H-1B program. Where increasing the number of visas or green cards granted is politically intractable, policymakers should amend allocation procedures to prioritize higher-skilled workers, particularly for green cards, where some immigrants face decades-long waits

The reason for targeting these two programs, not OPT, is down to the numbers game. OPT derives from the F-1 student visa, on which there is no numerical cap, so annually, there are over 200,000 U.S.-based individuals working on OPT. By comparison, only 85,000 H-1Bs are given out annually, not just to post-OPT workers seeking to stay in the U.S., but also to new workers hired from abroad. Marginally more generously, 140,000 green cards are set aside for employment-based applications, but this includes family members. 


Given that these imbalances recur annually, both programs have become formidable bottlenecks. In 2020, over 200,000 H-1B applicants put their applications into a lottery competing for 85,000 slots. The backlog for employment-based green card applicants, meanwhile, hit 1.2 million, pointing to an even direr mismatch between demand and supply. Some green card applicants have waited decades for processing, living all the while in the U.S. on temporary status. Increasing the number of H-1Bs without expanding the green card pool would only exacerbate this situation, so green card availability is the more natural problem to fix. 


Materially, what would this look like? This is a tough question, not only because of the U.S. immigration system’s complexity, but because the easiest fix—raising the cap—is mortally opposed by immigration hardliners. Be that as it may, doing so to match demand will be the only truly lasting solution, and so Democrats could consider bartering off against less-loved aspects of the immigration system. The “diversity lottery”—which allots 55,000 green cards, truly at random, to applicants from around the world—is one such target, so it could be abolished and its quota reallocated to employment-based green cards. 

One other suggestion that sometimes comes up is “stapling a green card” to every STEM graduate’s diploma. Political viability aside, there is reason to be leery of such a proposal. It creates compliance issues (green card degree mills, anyone?) and, because of the green card’s flexibility, does not guarantee that recipients will work in the U.S. That said, this proposal has “its heart in the right place,” as Macro Polo’s Matt Sheehan says, and I agree with him that a better solution may be to “staple an H-1B” instead. The H-1B is employer-linked, so applicants would have to secure a job for the visa rather than just graduate into it. But this would help them sidestep the usual H-1B competition, potentially nudging them into staying in the U.S. long-term. 



The road to reform, however, will be long and arduous, first and foremost because of its political sensitivity. While 88% of Democrats say that immigrants strengthen the country, only 41% of Republicans concur—and 44% say they burden it. Hence, even with control of the federal government, Democrats will not have carte blanche to do as they will. With narrow margins in Congress and a possible midterm reversal in 2022, legislative reform will be a struggle to push through. 


That legislative paralysis will push Biden toward executive action, creating a larger problem for immigrants. Even the best-intentioned executive orders may not guarantee the long-term security of U.S. immigrants, as a president in 2024 could overturn them with relative ease. This specter does not only threaten immigrants entering then, but also immigrants making decisions right now. 

Immigration is a life-changing, decades-long process that demands planning far in advance. Yet the particular cruelty of the U.S. immigration system is that half a lifetime of striving can be undone by the single stroke of a pen. In the past few years, haunting stories have emerged of families divided and lives upended by executive actions implemented with little warning. For U.S. citizens, it is easy to forget these stories. For immigrants, it is anything but.


Biden must accept that the Trump years have done irreversible damage to immigrants’ perception of the U.S., dimming its promise and putting the fear of future executive action into their minds. This is especially so for Chinese students, whose visits to the U.S. plunged by 69.4% from 2019 to 2020. While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly was the primary factor, the decrease in Chinese students was starkly larger than the 40% to 60% drop in student visits from other countries. Moreover, internationally oriented high school programs back in China are missing enrollment goals by 50% to 60%. That suggests the true impact of these “missing high schoolers,” who will one day turn into missing college applicants, has not even fully hit yet. 


Democrats can only do so much to change this. But one thing they can do is be willing to adopt modest legislative reform, even if unsatisfying. Biden may well already be thinking this, thanks to a stark Obama-era failure. In 2013, the government nearly passed comprehensive immigration reform, but for a political miscalculation by Obama and Senate Democrats. Ignoring a more moderate proposal set forth by a bipartisan House group, Democratic leaders bet they could cut a better deal—then watched that sink when the Senate flipped in 2014, an experience that has since haunted would-be reformers. 


Being able to guarantee stability for immigrants will go a long way toward encouraging them to make the United States their home. Otherwise, when they look at what Biden is doing, they may say: that’s all very great, but what’ll happen in 2024? 


One last word is necessary, bearing in mind the storming of the U.S. Capitol that took place this January. And that is that immigration is much more than mere policy. 

The United States’ success in attracting immigrants has material roots, true. And yes, talent begets talent, so the U.S.’s abundance of expertise invites more experts to come. But the U.S. also owes its magnetism to its inestimable soft power, to its promise of freedom and fairness and opportunity, which is something that no OPT extension, no H-1B program expansion, and no complicated legislative workaround for green cards can hope to address.

To safeguard the United States’ preeminence as the destination for global talent, the U.S. first needs to restore its democracy. It must show itself to be an open society, one that cherishes the diversity of countries and creeds that finds its way to the U.S.’s shores. And so as Biden works to strengthen the fabric of U.S. democracy, he should take care not merely to view immigrants as an instrument to weave that pattern, but as a part of the weft. By doing so, he will not just strengthen the U.S.’s appeal to immigrants. He will strengthen the United States itself.


The views expressed herein are those of the individual author, and they do not represent the official positions of organizing and sponsoring institutions, including China Focus, 21st Century China Center, Fudan-UC Center on Contemporary China, and the 1990 Institute.

The views expressed herein are those of the individual author, and they do not represent the official positions of organizing and sponsoring institutions, including China Focus, 21st Century China Center, Fudan-UC Center on Contemporary China, and the 1990 Institute.

bottom of page