Editor’s note: Steve S. Rao is a Council Member and Former Mayor Pro Tem for the Town of Morrisville and served as a Board Member for the New American Economy, now the American Immigration Council. He also serves on the NC League of Municipalities Race and Equity Task Force.  Steve is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Our global competitors, like China, have been closing the gap with the United States for decades — building their economies, attempting to take over the manufacturing industry, funding innovation, and producing the products that keep technology running around the world. Without action from Congress, those competitors could win the race for global talent, too, taking innovation and economic strength away from our shores.

To get ahead in this global competition, the U.S. House recently passed the COMPETES Act, which — among other pro-America policies — reforms the broken immigration system to allow educated and skilled STEM workers who were born in another country to stay and work for American businesses.

I’m proud to be the son of immigrants who came to our country to find the American Dream and I’m working now to ensure that dream is accessible to others in my community.

Steve Rao

As a council member for Morrisville, one of the fastest growing Towns in the Research Triangle Park, I know how crucial it is for the United States to remain the best destination in the world for top talent, minds, and ideas.

In the Research Triangle, according to New American Economy (now American Immigration Council), almost 26% of the foreign-born population holds a graduate degree. Statewide, foreign workers account for 25% of our electronics workforce, and 35% of our state’s software developers; overall, almost one in five of our state’s STEM employees hail from overseas.  But many of these people lack security here. They’re vital to our businesses and state economy, and yet on their temporary visas, it’s hard for them to travel, difficult for them to change employers, and virtually impossible for them to start businesses.

If a prospective employee does manage to get a visa, they often face enormous challenges as they seek to gain more permanent status. The H-1B is designed to be a stepping stone to a green card for employees who play by the rules. But green cards are capped at 7 percent per country annually. That means immigrants from populous countries like India wind up having to wait decades before they can gain permanent status. In fact, the current wait for Indian green card applicants is about 150 years, meaning skilled workers can expect to spend their entire life stuck on a “temporary” visa.

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Frustration of this system is very evident in Morrisville and much of the Triangle.  In fact, over the past few years, I have seen a significant increase in constituent requests from Skilled Visa holders to accelerate their paths to citizenship.   Many of these residents are from India and  have been waiting for over 10 years for their green cards.  I am seeing many Tech entrepreneurs, leaving Morrisville and North Carolina for other parts of the world  to start their companies create jobs.   We need these jobs in the United States, and obviously in the great state of North Carolina.

There has always been a strong connection between immigration and the growth of innovation in our country    We often forget that 44% of our Fortune 500 were started by immigrants.     Among these are some of the largest and most successful companies in the world, including Apple, Amazon, Costco, and Bank of America. Together, these companies employ 13 million people worldwide.


Who knows?   Among these are some of the largest and most successful companies in the world, including Apple, Amazon, Costco, and Bank of America. Together, these companies employ 13 million people worldwide.he next Google, Zoom, Yahoo, SAS, or Slack to be founded by the best and brightest of the world right here in North Carolina.

Finally, our universities are abundant with international students from all round the globe.  Our state’s 21,954 international students inject $722.3 million a year into the local economy, supporting over 9,000 jobs. International students also make college affordable for Americans: though they account for just 4.6% of the student population, foreign students pay 28% of all college tuition.    We need to keep the best and brightest students from around the world  students here in the United States so they can create the jobs of the new economy, and help us retain our true competitive advantage:  Research and Innovation.

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To retain our top spot as a leader in Global Innovation, we can’t sit by as our competitive advantage in the global market disappears. Congress should be laser-focused on making America the best place in the world to get an education, start a company, produce goods, and fund cutting-edge developments.

Right now, we continue to slip behind because our immigration system does not promote highly-skilled workers in science, technology, manufacturing, and engineering (STEM) by giving them a pathway to stay and contribute to the United States after they receive an education.

Losing those students and professionals to other countries could prove detrimental to our state’s economy.   In fact, our tech industry adds nearly $49 billion to the economy every year, making the Tarheel state’s technology sector the 13th-largest in the country. That sector also employs more than 360,000 people and continues to grow. However, that trend could soon reverse under our current immigration policies at a time when our country is in need of more workers, not less.

We’re already facing a national and statewide shortage of skilled professionals. Before the pandemic, there were nearly 170,000 open jobs in the tech and innovation sectors. Nationwide today, there are more than three million open jobs in various STEM, health care, and professional services roles. Creating direct options for international students to work in the U.S. — like the reforms in the COMPETES Act — could cut the STEM-related workforce gap by a quarter and add more than $230 billion to America’s economy over the next decade.

Until Congress acts, the self-inflicted brain drain of talented professionals who go to school in America and then are forced to leave and take their ideas with them will continue to benefit our competitors — like China. We need our leaders in D.C. to come together and find a bipartisan solution to address our talent, manufacturing, and workforce shortage before it’s too late.

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North Carolina’s Senator Thom Tillis has sponsored legislation in the past to support American research and he voted in favor of a more narrow version of the COMPETES Act in the Senate, the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA). This week, taking part in a rare bipartisan vote, Senator Tillis and his colleagues voted to send USICA to a conference committee with the House. I encourage Senator Tillis to prioritize keeping our country ahead of China and leading the global innovation race by working to include important immigration provisions in the final version of the legislation.

We have to revitalize the American Dream for the next generation of hardworking North Carolinians. Our state’s vibrant tech industry is an economic powerhouse — but it can only stay strong, and keep creating jobs for everyone, if we allow businesses to hire the talent they need to grow.  North Carolina has always represented what’s possible when education, innovation, and resources come together. The foreign-born STEM provisions in the COMPETES Act are one step toward a country where those things are possible within the Research Triangle and beyond for years to come.