Thirty years later, as the West confronts the aggressive dictatorships headquartered in Moscow and Beijing, the United States risks blowing its greatest opportunity since the Cold War to bolster our competitiveness at the expense of our adversaries. Why? Because some in the Republican Party are more dedicated to thwarting any action on immigration than they are committed to competing with Russia and China.
Regarding Russia, Congress dropped the ball last month when passing the $40 billion supplemental funding bill to help Ukraine resist Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. As tens of thousands of young, middle-class workers fled Russia out of disgust or necessity, the Biden administration proposed easing visa restrictions on Russians with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). But Republican leaders refused to allow that proposal to be included in the legislation, several lawmakers and congressional staffers told me.
Now, Congress might be about to drop the ball regarding China as well. House and Senate negotiators are working behind the scenes to merge the two chambers’ versions of landmark legislation designed to prepare the United States for strategic and economic competition with China. The House version includes provisions that would give special status for refugees fleeing the Chinese government’s crackdown on freedom and democracy in Hong Kong and would authorize the Department of Homeland Security to expedite entry for up to 5,000 highly skilled Hong Kongers. It would also expand visas for applicants with advanced STEM degrees from any country. The Senate version has none of these provisions.
Inside the negotiations, intense discussions are continuing between Democrats and Republicans over these provisions, lawmakers and staffers said. But last month Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was opposed to anything related to immigration being included in the bill, calling these provisions “partisan” and “completely unrelated to countering China.”
Yet the push for helping skilled Hong Kongers relocate to the United States has been bipartisan in the past. The House bill’s language is taken from the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act, sponsored by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), which passed the House unanimously in 2020. It died in the Senate after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) blocked it. A different bipartisan bill in the Senate to ease immigration requirements for Hong Kongers fleeing Beijing’s crackdown is also stalled.
“I urge my Senate colleagues to keep our bill in the final China competition package,” Kinzinger told me. “We’re putting the Chinese Communist Party on notice that their continued attacks on freedom could mean losing the very people who have built Hong Kong’s economic success.”
When opposing the Malinowski-Kinzinger bill, Cruz claimed that accepting Hong Kongers was the first step to opening our borders and that the Chinese Communist Party could exploit the program to send spies to the United States. This ignores the fact that China has much easier ways to get spies into our country and that the CCP is trying to stop Hong Kongers from leaving because Beijing knows the brain-drain risk for China is real.
“It’s a debate between those who think our openness as a democratic society is an advantage in the struggle with autocracies or a disadvantage,” Malinowski told me. “One of the central lessons of the Cold War was that it is an advantage. I just hope we choose the same strategy that won the Cold War.”
One thing that has changed since the Cold War is that now these skilled workers who are fleeing Russia and Hong Kong have more options. Some reports say 50,000 to 70,000 Russian tech workers fled to places such as Turkey, Georgia or the Baltic countries in the first weeks of the war in Ukraine. Hong Kong business leaders are decamping for Singapore. Canada has already expanded immigration for Hong Kongers with advanced degrees, and thousands are taking advantage.
The whole world is competing for the talents of those who are fleeing from Hong Kong and Putin’s Russia. Republicans’ excessive fear of immigration should not waste a strategic opportunity for the United States to strengthen itself and weaken its rivals at the same time. Congress should work to ensure that China’s and Russia’s losses are America’s gains.