An Immigration Strategy for Great Power Competition

Tensions are rising across the Pacific as China’s grand strategy aims to reshape the world around its interests. China’s fiery economic growth has cooled rapidly in recent years, but rather than trimming its plan, Beijing has redoubled its efforts and released near-term military modernization priorities for 2027. US-China cooperation is now at its lowest level since ties normalized, and Washington is increasingly concerned that a revisionist China may act hastily to grab what it can in the short term, particularly in relation to Taiwan. When the United States seeks to engage a country with more than four times its population in long-term competition, it is imperative that it address the challenge by using every available advantage, especially soft power.

In order to successfully compete with China, the United States should seek to capitalize on the significant benefits accruing from increased immigration. The best and brightest in the world want to go to school, start businesses and pay taxes in the United States. Rather than welcoming these individuals, restrictive policies have led America to mimic China’s demographic slump. In the past three years, the United States has issued visas to less than 3 percent of the more than 20 million visa applicants annually, and even denies citizenship to veterans who have served with the promise of citizenship. Population growth has fallen to its lowest level in recent history due to declining birth rates, rising mortality rates and Trump’s ongoing immigration policy.

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In addition to promoting economic growth, immigration can also be beneficial for the military balance. Faced with the Soviet threat during the Cold War, devastated post-war Western Europe greatly increased immigration to rebuild its human capital. To maintain a strong military, the United States must continue to recruit individuals for military service, despite growing competition from the private sector for highly qualified individuals. Expanded immigration would reverse declining military recruitment, secure supply chains, and supercharge advanced fields of engineering, manufacturing, aerospace, and computing necessary to maintain US leadership in key technologies. Finally, a larger economy brings with it more tax revenue that could support a larger federal budget. This would allow more funding to be allocated to emerging high-tech threats even if the military budget as a percentage of total spending does not increase. Increased immigration would also benefit the United States diplomatically by easing tensions with America’s neighbors. Additionally, speeding up visas for talented individuals from Russia and China could serve an important economic purpose and hit US competitors harder than other economic sanctions.

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The passage of the CHIPS and Science Act was a step in the right direction for the development of key technologies, but a lack of public funding is not currently the bottleneck of the US economy – in fact, private investment in the United States is at record highs. Rather, growth appears to be hampered most by a lack of human capital. The August unemployment rate was 3.7 percent, well below the natural unemployment rate of 4.4 percent that economists recommend for sustainable growth. Such heavy investment would most effectively increase production and yield by hiring labour, but the economy is simply running out of local labor.

Immigration reform legislation is notoriously difficult to pass—caught in a constant state of deliberation, always debated but never achieved. It is now thirty-five years since the last major immigration reform, and while politicians have promised progress for decades, all have not delivered. However, there is now good reason to believe that a breakthrough is on the horizon.

The discussion about the significant advantages of immigration reform for great power competition is already beginning to shape politics. Notably, dozens of prominent national security officials recently submitted a letter to the Bipartisan Innovation Act Conference Committee, acknowledging that bottlenecks in the US immigration system are undermining the defense industry base and allowing China to surpass our STEM talent pipeline. “More than half the AI [artificial intelligence] PhD students leaving the country after graduation say they did so because of immigration issues,” the letter reads. An early version of the CHIPS Act included provisions to expand immigration of highly skilled workers, but these were trimmed as the bill progressed. Despite these legislative frustrations, there are policy options that can be implemented by the executive to achieve immigration goals within existing policies. Comprehensive immigration reform legislation will maximize US economic and military strength and put the United States in the best position to dissuade China from a militarized move against the international order.

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Ike Barrash has an MA in Political Science from Iowa State University, completed internships in the Defense Strategy and Planning program at the Stimson Center and the Office of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department, and actively researches China and great power competition.

PICTURED: US Marine Sergeant Anthony Calantas (C) speaks with colleagues after taking the Pledge of Allegiance aboard a Coast Guard cutter Waesche November 10, 2014 during a US Citizenship and Immigration Services event in Alameda, California. Reuters.

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