This piece is published as part of our Immigration Idea Incubator series, which features policy ideas our team has been thinking about in addition to our formal immigration strategy work. We welcome your thoughts and engagement!

Language skills have always been an essential tenet of U.S. national security. This is why, each year,  the U.S. government spends several hundred million dollars on federally-funded foreign language education programs to help Americans become fluent in over a dozen languages deemed crucial to our national security and economic prosperity, including Arabic, Mandarin, and Russian.

These programs operate by sending Americans abroad to interact with native speakers, accelerating their fluency in the languages and bolstering their understanding of the respective cultures. There are demonstrable advantages of learning languages from native speakers that render these programs immensely beneficial. And given rising tensions with China and Russia and the relatively recent influx of Afghans and Ukrainians, these skills are more critical than ever. 

Still, with Americans trailing behind other advanced nations and nearly a quarter of U.S. diplomats failing to meet language benchmarks, we can do more to train Americans in these critical languages. Namely, we should leverage the many native speakers of these languages who study at our universities every year. 

The H-1B program is one typical pathway for international students to work in the U.S. temporarily after graduation. Recognizing how their skills can help American students, a cap exemption for H-1B beneficiaries to work at U.S. universities is already in place.  

Still, research suggests that learning a foreign language before age ten could be key to reaching  native-level grammatical fluency. What’s more, early exposure to the languages and cultures that the native speakers would share could also drive interest in further education or the existing immersion programs.

This is why there should be a similar cap exemption for native speakers of critical languages who agree to teach the language in American K-12 schools or utilize the language directly in service of U.S. interests. 

The capacity restraints of our employment and diversity immigration programs have created a long-standing, systemic reliance on the family-based immigration system for much of the cultural and linguistic diversity of the United States. This proposal aims to change that by helping American students learn critical languages at an earlier age.  

In capitalizing on the fluency of international graduates of U.S. universities, we can foster future generations of Americans who have learned crucial languages from a young age. And if they maintain that interest and fluency into adulthood, they can apply that to professions which bolstor our economic prosperity and national security.  

Creating an H-1B cap exemption for native speakers of critical languages can help supplement the existing robust immersion programs.That way, we are utilizing the resources of native speakers within our borders who can and are willing to teach their languages to U.S. students, fostering  homegrown talent and understanding of the cultures crucial to our national security and partners in maintaining diplomacy.

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