It has been something of a surprise to see genuinely bipartisan bills pass in recent days, including the Chips and Science Act, which will spend hundreds of billions of dollars on rebuilding the U.S. manufacturing base to better compete with China. A number of Republicans have put aside old orthodoxies to engage in industrial policy in service to the long-term national interest.
But if members of both parties are now going to work together to revitalize U.S. manufacturing, it might require a breaching of a much harder divide between the parties: The one over immigration.
The Chips bill will invest $52.7 billion in shoring up the semiconductor industry, which is increasingly essential to technological progress and the human well-being it can drive. It would invest more than $250 billion in scientific and technological research and development.
But now Punchbowl News reports that a group of technology companies, including Intel and AMD, have sent a letter to congressional leaders urging the next step in the process: Bringing in more high-tech immigrant workers.
In the spirit of this new bipartisan desire to rebuild, including in struggling areas of the industrial heartland, can we also have a conversation about immigration reform? The answer is, probably not.
In their letter, the tech companies warn that in the semiconductor industry, “we face an immediate shortage of qualified workers.” They urged the promotion of more STEM education, but said that in the short term, they are hampered by “the inability to retain talented foreign-born individuals who graduate with master’s and doctoral degrees in relevant STEM fields at U.S. higher education institutions.”
The tech companies call for a variety of reforms to make it easier for immigrants educated in STEM fields to work in the U.S. This is necessary, they say, to carry out the Chips bill’s mission of outpacing “competitors” (i.e. China) who are investing in STEM workers themselves.
Which points to some interesting tensions in this debate.
On one hand, in moving toward industrial policies, Republicans are breaking with their professed devotion to things like “free” markets and “limited” government, which Republicans favor when they serve the interests of big corporations and the wealthy.
But it’s not likely Republicans will put aside their rigid ideological opposition to reforming our immigration system to facilitate more immigration in the national interest. Yet that might also be key to rebuilding the manufacturing base.
Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has done extensive analyses of our technological policies, says the chip companies are generally right to see such immigration reforms as essential to making this industrial policy succeed.
“The success of this reshoring effort is utterly dependent on both homegrown and foreign-born workers who are available and well trained,” Muro told us.
Muro said it should be difficult — theoretically, at least — for Republicans to oppose such changes on grounds that only Americans should do this work without being willing to invest in creating a U.S. workforce to do it.
“There’s an essential need to build that pipeline domestically,” Muro said. “But in the meantime, it’s going to require stabilizing through importing workers who want to be here.” And if Republicans don’t agree to such immigration changes, “it could undercut the reshoring that they and others want to happen.”
In another irony, Muro noted that allowing semiconductor production to scale up fast could “also create tens of thousands of technician jobs that American workers can occupy,” including in red states such as Texas and Ohio, which are likely to become home to new semiconductor plants.
If the parties could come to an agreement that focused on educated immigrant workers, it might crack open the door to a new discussion on immigration more generally.
Unfortunately, our immigration debate was essentially frozen during the entirety of the Donald Trump era. It’s not that we didn’t talk about immigration; we just stopped talking about what the future of immigration policy ought to look like, instead arguing about Trump’s border wall, about family-separation policies and about whatever “caravan” was supposedly about to invade the United States.
You used to hear Republicans say they favor legal but not illegal immigration, but you don’t hear that much anymore. While in 2016 Trump was to the right of much of his party on immigration, most Republicans have moved to his position.
For Republicans to agree with Democrats on reform that allows for an increase in legal immigration — even with draconian enforcement measures — now seems extremely unlikely.
Some heavily Republican rural areas could benefit from new residents, which means new workers and consumers. Some struggling rural towns are seeking immigrants to prop up declining populations and stagnant economies. But you rarely hear Republicans talk about the positive effects of immigration on the U.S. economy, including on those stagnating areas.
To be clear, Democrats have committed their own serious offenses on immigration. President Biden kept too many of Trump’s border policies in place and has been derelict in honoring commitments to refugees and asylum seekers, also seemingly wanting to avoid hard debates about this issue.
But now that the parties are chummy on rebuilding the industrial heartland, can’t we have a debate over how immigration might at least fit into that?