In a message to Russian scientists and engineers to abandon Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Biden administration has proposed an immigration measure to offer highly educated Russians a better chance at permanent residence and a new life in America. If the measure becomes law, experts expect Putin to be unhappy at the prospect of losing so much talent.
Background: After Russia invaded Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russian scientists and engineers left the country. Many sought temporary respites in other countries, such as Georgia, while weighing their options. Those unable to find a permanent place to live and work are likely to return to Russia.
“In a sign that Russia fears a brain drain as a result of the war, the government last month [in March 2022] Exempted young workers in the technology sector from compulsory military service, offering them advantageous mortgage rates, and freeing IT [information technology] companies from income tax and inspections, as well as granting them access to cheap loans,” according to the Financial Times.
The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell advocated America open its doors to Russian scientists and engineers to “Drain Putin’s Brains.” A February 2022 Forbes article discussed why the United States should welcome Russian students and professionals with technical expertise.
What does the Immigration Measure Do? In a letter to the House on April 28, 2022, the Biden administration included a measure on Russian scientists and engineers as part of requested legislation for the FY 2022 emergency supplemental funding for Ukraine. “This authority would help the United States attract and retain Russian STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] talent and undercut Russia’s innovative potential, benefiting US national security,” according to the administration’s description of the provision.
The measure would eliminate the need for Russians with a master’s or doctoral degree in a STEM field to obtain an employer sponsor or be placed in backlogs for permanent residence (green cards). It would require adjudication within 90 days if possible, taking into account the need for security assessments. The measure would end after four years (unless Congress later extended it).
As a technical matter, the proposed legislation is necessary to attract Russian scientists and engineers because H-1B status would be impossible for them to obtain except at an employer exemption from the numerical limit (such as a university), while other parts of the US immigration system are unlikely to be available for them. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced in April it received nearly 400,000 more H-1B registrations than available H-1B petitions for FY 2023.
Here is the text of the provision:
“IN GENERAL.— Section 203(b)(2) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 USC 1153(b)(2)) is amended by adding at the end of the following:
(D) Notwithstanding subparagraph (B), the requirements of subparagraph (A) that an alien’s services in the sciences, arts, professions, or business be sought by an employer in the United States shall not apply to aliens (and the parents, spouses, and children of such aliens if accompanying or following to join) who—
“(i) are citizens of Russia;
“(ii) have earned a masters or doctoral degree in the United States or an equivalent foreign degree in a field involving science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, including but not limited to degrees relevant to the following fields: Advanced Computing, Advanced Engineering Materials, Advanced Gas Turbine Engine Technologies, Advanced Manufacturing, Advanced and Networked Sensing and Signature Management, Advanced Nuclear Energy Technologies, Advanced Particle Detector Instrumentation Technologies, Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Systems and Robotics, Biotechnologies, Communication and Networking Technologies, Cybersecurity, Directed Energy, Financial Technologies, Human-Machine Interfaces, Hypersonics, Advanced Missile Propulsion Technologies, Networked Sensors and Sensing, Quantum Information Technologies, Renewable Energy Generation and Storage, Semiconductors and Microelectronics, Space Technologies and Systems; and “(iii) are seeking admission to engage in work in the United States in an endeavor related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.”
“(b) ADJUDICATION AND VETTING.—Petitions and applications submitted under this section should be adjudicated expeditiously, as appropriate, within 90 days upon submission of all required documents, and should receive a timely adjudication, as appropriate, including any necessary steps to complete a security or fraud assessment of the applicant.
“(c) NUMERICAL LIMITATIONS.—Section 201(b)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 USC 1151(b)(1)) is amended by adding at the end the following:
“(F) Immigrants described in subparagraph (D) of section 203(b)(2).”
“(d) TERMINATION.—The authority of subsection (a) shall terminate 4 years after the date of enactment of this Act.”
What Will Vladimir Putin Think?: Gleb Yushin, an engineering and materials professor at Georgia Tech who graduated with a BA in physics from the Polytechnic Institute in Saint Petersburg, Russia, applauded the US initiative to offer a streamlined path to permanent residence for Russian scientists and engineers. “I think it is an outstanding strategic move to benefit the United States and weakened Putin’s authoritarian regime,” he said in an interview. “The smartest and most creative scientists and engineers cannot prosper in a country that severely restrict their freedom and values natural resources more than people’s abilities to innovate.”
“It will be challenging for Putin to counter this measure because restricting exit would ruin his support and reputation,” said Yushin, who cofounded Sila Nanotechnologies, a US company valued today at more than $3 billion. “Issuing exit visas [as in the days of the Soviet Union] would make everyone want to leave even more. The reality is many talented and hardworking people are eager to immigrate, but they feel nobody would welcome them, particularly now. Scientists and engineers want to maximize their positive impact, and they know they have a much better chance of achieving that from abroad.”
Brian D. Taylor, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, agrees with Yushin. “Some experts have estimated that hundreds of thousands of Russians have already left, including tens of thousands in the IT sector,” Taylor said in an interview. “If Russians with the right educational backgrounds will be able to emigrate to the US without even finding an employment sponsor, that will look like an attractive option to many.”
He believes the situation would become even more precarious inside Russia should Vladimir Putin declare a general military mobilization for the populace. Taylor noted in an earlier interview that sanctions and the departure of large Western firms would limit economic opportunities for many Russians.
In his book The Code of Putinism, Taylor that in Russia, only about 27% of employed persons work in small and medium-sized explained businesses, compared to 60% to 80% of the workforce in the world’s 34 largest market. The reason? Corruption and a flawed legal system. He blames “raiding” in Russia, where “law enforcement instigates a trumped-up case against a businessperson to criminal deprive her of all or part of her business.”
The Biden administration’s immigration measure could be a strategic benefit and counter a key Russian claim—the idea that the whole world is against “Russians” rather than aligned against Vladimir Putin and the Russian government for its actions in Ukraine. “A significant portion of Russian propaganda channels portraying Russian citizens as being treated unfairly in other countries,” said Gleb Yushin. “Welcoming Russian scientists and engineers would show exactly the opposite.”