Immigration in the National Security Strategy

Co-written with Emma Ashford

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) is its heavy focus on domestic issues. Though the document covers issues from infrastructure to the manufacturing base, this is perhaps most apparent in the document’s strong focus on immigration. While previous NSS documents have briefly addressed the question of illegal immigration, this document is perhaps unique in its assertion that legal immigration is also a national security concern.

Certainly, the document does address some accurate immigration and border-related concerns, though it massively overstates their impact. Terrorism and transnational criminal networks do pose a threat to the United States, even if this threat is typically overblown. The NSS wades into murkier waters when it states that: 

“illegal immigration… burdens the economy, [and] hurts American workers…”

But while this is inaccurate, it is not entirely out-of-step with previous administrations and their approach to illegal immigration. The most jarring difference between this and prior NSS documents, however, comes in the Trump administration’s characterization of legal immigration as a national security concern, stating that:

“We will also reform our current immigration system, which, contrary to our national interest and national security, allows for randomized entry and extended-family chain migration.”

The NSS calls for increased vetting of legal immigrants and higher standards for immigration to avoid the ‘national security risks’ created by legal immigration, though the document never actually defines what these risks would be.

Perhaps most disturbing is the characterization of student visas as a potential security threat, with the NSS promising to consider restrictions on foreign students who wish to study STEM subjects in order to prevent technology transfer and intellectual property. Though the document initially places this restriction in the context of students from countries under sanctions – presumably suggesting that nuclear proliferation is a key concern – a later passage suggests that it might be applied more broadly:

“Part of China’s military modernization and economic expansion is due to its access to… America’s world-class universities.”

The implication is that it is not only sanctioned states where potential international students might be subject to such restrictions.  Chinese students are especially prominent in American universities where they make up 31 percent of all foreign students and 30 percent of all foreign-born STEM students as of May 2017.  However, they are not the source of technology breaches. Students at the University of California are not stealing F-35 blueprints – hackers are.   

Even if Chinese students trained at American universities were a major source of technology for China’s military, boosting the number of skilled immigrants who can work and live here after finishing their educations will greatly diminish the number who move back to China and work in defense industries there.    

Huge percentages of Chinese skilled workers who were educated in the United States and then moved back to their homeland would return here if they had an offer of permanent residency (green card) and the better career opportunities that would undoubtedly accompany such immigration status.  According to a poll compiled by Vivek Wadhwa, a whopping 71 percent of U.S.-educated Chinese students who returned to China would either move back to the United States or seriously consider it if they could get a green card.  It is hard to see how locking skilled Chinese STEM workers and scientists in China will hamper their technological development for national security purposes.

The folly of restricting the immigration of STEM workers for national security reasons is best summarized by the tale of Qian Xuesen, a young rocket scientist who emigrated from China in 1935.  Legendary aerospace engineer, mathematician, and physicist Theodore von Karman pronounced Qian an “undisputed genius.”  He helped research jet propulsion, rockets, and then joined the Manhattan Institute during World War II.  In 1949, he was named the first Director of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) during the early years of the Cold War. 

Qian had two problems: U.S. immigration law and Cold War paranoia.  Qian never naturalized and on an immigration form in 1947, he answered that he was not a member of a group conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government.  Later unfounded allegations that he associated with Communists led to the revocation of his security clearance and his resignation from the JPL.  Despite almost no evidence and frequent denials by him and officials, the federal government ordered him to be deported for answering “no” on that 1947 form and eventually exchanged him for several downed American airmen.

John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said that “[Qian] was Joe McCarthy’s present to the Chinese.”  In Communist China, Qian is known as the Rocket King where he was foremost responsible for the research, design, and creation of Communist China’s missile and satellite launch program, including short, medium, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. After Qian’s deportation, the United States had one fewer potential subversive who could funnel secrets to the Chinese government while China gained a more advanced rocket, satellite, and nuclear program.

It seems unlikely that the Trump administration even knew about this episode, but they should.  The lesson here is not that Qian should have been deported sooner or never allowed into the country.  On the contrary, we think the lesson is that the U.S. government should not have panicked over a minor threat and deported a brilliant rocket scientist to an unfriendly power. The U.S. economy and national defense would have continued to benefit from Xuesen’s expertise, much as the United States can benefit today from the technological skills of immigrants.

In short, the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy takes a decidedly unconventional approach to immigration, both by including it in the document in such detail, and by including various aspects of legal immigration alongside more commonly cited concerns about crime and illegal immigration. Denying America the skills and intellect of future legal immigrants is a poor way to improve our economy. And if the improving technological prowess of states such as China poses a potential threat to U.S. national security, locking more scientists inside of China seems a particularly poor way to deal with it. 

Originally published on the Cato Institute blog.


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