WASHINGTON ― A group of former national security officials is asking lawmakers to exempt immigrants with advanced science, technology, engineering and math degrees from green card caps in order to help the U.S. compete with China.

“In today’s technology competition, the most powerful and enduring asymmetric advantage America has is its ability to attract and retain the world’s best and brightest,” the officials said in a letter dated Monday, first reported by Axios. “Bottlenecks in the U.S. immigration system risk squandering this advantage.”

The letter to conferees working to finalize a China competition bill was signed by former leaders of the Defense, Energy and Homeland Security departments, as well as former officials from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Security Agency and the CIA. Signatories include former defense secretaries Bill Cohen and Chuck Hagel, as well as National Defense Industrial Association chief executive David Norquist and former House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry.

Signatories asked that a House-passed provision, or some version of it, contains the exemption from green card caps.

The plurality of NDIA member firms reported in 2021 that America’s talent gap is the single-most vulnerable part of their supply chain, though NDIA also recorded an uptick in the size of the industry’s technical talent pool since 2018.

Meanwhile, China is “racing ahead” in growing its pipelines for domestic talent and is on track to double the number of U.S. STEM doctorates within the next three years, the letter said.

“China is the most significant technological and geopolitical competitor our country has faced in recent times,” the letter read. “With the world’s best STEM talent on its side, it will be very hard for America to lose. Without it, it will be very hard for America to win.”

Half of the advanced STEM degree holders working in the defense-industrial base are foreign-born, according to a March report from The Institute for Progress.

Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.

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