Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) was featured in an Immigration Newsmaker conversation hosted by the Center for Immigration Studies on Thursday, November 17, at 8:00am EST at the Capitol Hill Club. A leader in the U.S. Congress on immigration and national security issues, Senator Cotton’s committees include the Judiciary Committee, where he serves as the Ranking Member for the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, the Intelligence Committee, and the Armed Services Committee.
Senator Cotton argues that the United States is in the middle of a strategic competition with China and recommends an expansion of the American talent pool in advanced scientific and technological fields. The Newsmaker event covered the immigration policies impacting the American talent pool and enabling China to direct espionage efforts at American universities. Conversation included a discussion of needed reforms of our immigration system, as well as oversight and possible legislation in the upcoming 118th Congress.
Mark Krikorian, Moderator, Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies
Date and Location:
November 17, 2022
MARK KRIKORIAN: Good morning. My name is Mark Krikorian. I’m executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
And today we are going to be talking about an area where immigration and national security intersect. And to do that we have one of the top voices on Capitol Hill on both of those issues – national security and immigration – Senator Tom Cotton, who’s been in the Senate since 2015, was in the House before that; was an infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan; and has led on both the immigration issue and national security. Specifically, what we want to talk about is the intersection of those two with regard to China, foreign students and these various other related issues where our – I won’t say – China’s a rival, and the immigration issue clearly intersects with that.
So thanks for doing this, Senator. And the – you’ve just written a – submitted a letter recently to the administration about this issue. Why don’t we start with that or whatever sort of aspect of it you wanted to talk about.
SENATOR TOM COTTON (R-AR): Sure. Well, thank you, Mark, for having me. And thanks especially to the Center for Immigration Studies. CIS has been doing outstanding work on the immigration issue, which is very broad and complex, for many years. And it informs my work, and my aides work closely with you and so many people on your team, and I know it’s very helpful to educate all of the members of the Senate and the Congress who come to Washington oftentimes not that knowledgeable about the immigration issue because it’s mostly a federal issue. You know, you get new members of Congress in town, as we have this week, and they oftentimes have served in a state legislature or a county commission, so they understand some of the basics of government that happens at every level – you know, they understand tax policy, for instance, or they understand a lot about health-care policy often because Medicaid is a joint state-federal program – but immigration, like national security, is one of those issues that they just don’t hear much about at the state level. So oftentimes they’re misinformed, usually by organizations representing businesses that want to exploit our immigration system for cheap labor. CIS does a great job of helping inform and educate them on the realities of immigration.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you.
SEN. COTTON: And I do want to talk today about a(n) intersection of immigration and national security that often gets overlooked, which is the threat from China. As Mark said, I wrote a letter to the Biden administration earlier this week that was, again, informed by some of the work CIS had done about the way two Chinese companies, ByteDance and its more well-known subsidiary TikTok, have been potentially abusing the H-1B visa to bring Chinese nationals into America to work at those companies’ so-called American headquarters where data is supposed to be protected from the Chinese communist mainland, but I have strong suspicions that it is actually still accessible, which is a grave threat to American security and privacy not just today but for decades into the future. So just one example of how CIS’s work helps me and so many others in the Congress, but also one example of, like I said, this unusual nexus that not many Americans think about.
When they think about China and national security, they might think about, say, China’s hypersonic missiles, or maybe they think about, you know, how China has been stealing our jobs and our manufacturing base and intellectual property for decades. Those are very important issues as well. When they think about immigration and national security, traditionally one might think about our wide-open southern border and the fact that we have cartel members and gang members flooding our communities with fentanyl, killing more than a hundred thousand Americans a year; or the dozens of illegal aliens on the terror watchlists that have crossed our border over the last year. Those are all really, really vital issues as well.
But there is this nexus between China and our legal immigration system that China uses to exploit America’s prosperity and put at risk our security, and also influence our politics. I’ll just give you one other example of this. In my new book “Only The Strong” I write at some length about what I call the China lobby, which is the pervasive influence of China in our society. A lot of examples of it. Some of them don’t involve immigration and some of them are very well-known, like when the Houston Rockets general manager merely retweeted – he didn’t even say it in his own words; he merely retweeted a comment in favor – in support of Hong Kong democracy protesters. The league and LeBron James came down on him like a ton of bricks. Why? Because China is their single biggest overseas market. LeBron James also wants his movies to be aired in Chinese theaters.
But it also influences or has influenced the immigration system as well. For instance, a lot of universities, even a lot of private boarding schools at the secondary school level depend heavily on full-freight-tuition-paying Chinese nationals. I mean, I have a friend who went to a boarding school, you know, 25 years ago, and you know, it was in the Midwest. Typically, it’s a lot of farm kids, a lot of hockey players. Now it’s more than half Chinese nationals – not Chinese Americans, but Chinese nationals who are on a student visa to come here. Just think about the influence that that creates, say, for the congressman from that district. You have the headmaster of that school; you have its board of directors who are probably influential, notable people in their community; you have the city and county government, because they generate so much economic activity for that community; they’re all coming to Washington. They’re going to meet with that congressman. They’re going to urge him not to, say, relax student visa rules, not something that’s in their actual core interest; they’re going to ask him to tone it down on Taiwan, to tone it down on the genocide against religious and ethnic minorities in northwest China. They’re going to do that because they’re getting influence and pressure from Chinese communists.
That’s what I say when I mean it’s pervasive. When you have so much Chinese leverage in our society, to include in our immigration system, we’re giving Chinese communists the opportunity to influence our policy in ways that’s not even directly related to their own material and immediate interests.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Interesting.
SEN. COTTON: And like I said, CIS has done great work to help expose the risk that China poses using and exploiting our legal immigration system.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Now, that’s a fascinating point about China, like you said, using it, but in a sense sort of as an influence operation. But also there’s sort of more direct issues. I mean, the – about one-third – more than one-third of all foreign students in the United States are Chinese nationals – again, not immigrants who are green card holders or citizens who happen to have Chinese background, but actual people who are on student visas. And that itself, especially at the graduate school and researcher level, has direct implications for security, either because of industrial espionage or actual political espionage. I mean, so what is the – what is the vulnerability there?
SEN. COTTON: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think most Americans envision, you know, people on student visas as kind of scrappy, up-by-the-bootlaces success stories – young kids from countries like China or Nigeria or Egypt or Pakistan who struggled, who had parents who cared for them, who helped them get an education despite the troubled circumstances of their countries or maybe their regions in those countries, and finally got that golden ticket to come to America and learn and become an American citizen one day and build a better life here for themselves and be a great contributing, vibrant member of our community. There are a lot of those stories.
Let’s not kid ourselves. China is a totalitarian communist country. And if you get one of those golden tickets from China, the odds that you, or more likely your parents or your grandparents, are affiliated with and supportive of the Chinese Communist Party or the People’s Liberation Army is pretty high. And there’s a reason why so many Chinese nationals come here to study at premier research universities, not small liberal arts colleges, and why they tend to go into advanced scientific fields – especially, as Mark said, at the graduate and the post-graduate level. That’s because they’re here on a mission. They’re here to exploit wide gaps in security at our universities; to target programs and departments that have contracts with the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, our intelligence agencies; to steal that technology; to recruit other assets on those faculties to commit similar kinds of espionage.
That’s why I have legislation that, you know, on one hand would catalog all Chinese companies that are owned by, supported, or sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party or the People’s Liberation Army, to try to restrict visas given to persons affiliated with those organizations or that would simply end the practice of giving Chinese nationals visas – student visas – to study at the graduate and the post-graduate level of STEM fields. Undergraduate levels is not as dangerous in this espionage regard. It still poses the risk if there are too many visas given out, especially in concentrated fashions at specific universities, of the Chinese influence that I mentioned earlier. But, I mean, we should – we should have Chinese nationals coming here to study things like Western philosophy and the Federalist Papers and Shakespeare, not coming here to study quantum computing at Caltech. It just makes no sense to be training China’s next generation of cutting-edge engineers or computer programmers or weapons developers at our own universities and put at risk the technology we’ve developed at those universities in – often in conjunction with the federal government.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And the other effect of that is that the capacity to do that training – the number of professors, the lab time, and all that – is not infinite. And so if we’re importing people who are going to be using some of those – some of that capacity, those are Americans we’re not training to do that work.
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. I mean, at the end of the – at the end of the – look, we have a lot of great universities and colleges. But at the end of the day, there is a total limit on the number of seats in those schools. There’s a smaller limit on the number of seats in fields like engineering or mathematics or computer science. And as you say, Mark, that if we are – if we have 300,000 Chinese nationals here, that’s 300,000 seats that otherwise might not be going to Americans who could get that training, who could go on to do those jobs.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. Now, the agency within Homeland Security that oversees this whole foreign student program is in ICE, and that was really basically a legacy of 9/11 because there was this concern, you know, you’d have Iranian students, they may sign up to study the Federalist Papers and then miraculously in the second semester of freshman year they have this, you know, road to Damascus moment and they realize, you know, they really wanted to study nuclear engineering instead. The whole point was to have an agency – it’s within ICE – that sort of oversees what’s going on. It’s the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, SEVP. And it doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of that. I mean, my sense is that ICE doesn’t give that high priority. Is that something that maybe a new Congress, even if you all are still in the minority next year – in the House, the Republicans will be in the majority – need to focus more attention on getting – sort of lighting a fire under that agency so they actually take their responsibility seriously?
SEN. COTTON: I think – obviously, the example you gave is important as well. And again, I don’t want to minimize the national security threats we face, you know, at our southern border or, you know, through rogue nations like Iran or Syria engaging in these exchange programs. But it is specifically China that has the resources and the scale and the driven motivation to exploit an immigration system that really needs to be refocused on. And the student visa education program needs to focus more specifically on China.
Now, that’s not just an issue with ICE or DHS; it’s really an issue all across our government. I mean, for 30 years, you know, bureaucrats in Washington and politicians, frankly, in both parties viewed China as a partner. They thought that, you know, their peaceful rise was going to help America. I mean, Joe Biden said this repeatedly, not only as president or a presidential candidate, but as vice president, as a senator for decades. It’s time to stop thinking that way.
You know, Joe Biden keeps insisting that we’re not in a cold war with China, and I know most Americans would prefer we not be, and certainly no one wants a cold war with China just like we didn’t want one with Russia. But if another country is already waging a cold war against you, your choice is not whether you’re in it or not in it. Your choice is whether you win it or lose it. And too often, we’ve been losing it. So we really need to reorient our entire bureaucracy towards the threat that China poses because there’s not a single department or agency in our government that doesn’t have Chinese influence or Chinese threats in some ways touching it, to include our immigration agencies.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So, to – just one more thing on the foreign student issue. We have no limits on the number of foreign students just in general, whether from China or anywhere else. And even at the university level, there’s no limit on the percentage of the student body that are foreign students. So in a sense, we have kind of delegated our access to the United States to these thousands of institutions, public and private, which have all of their own different motivations. Does – is there – is there kind of a way of re-looking, rethinking the whole concept of taking in foreign students?
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. I think we need to do so. Like I said, you know, I’ve got legislation that would just cut it off at the graduate and post-graduate level. I think we also need to assess, again, the total number of foreign students we allow in and also how we make those decisions. I mean, in some cases nonprofits, which include universities or research foundations affiliated with them, are totally exempt from any caps that even are in place in some programs in our immigration system.
I mean, this gets back to the broader question about how many immigrants we take in. You know, as Mark knows, CIS has been helpful and I have legislation that would alter the way we conduct our entire legal immigration system and also lower the total number of green cards we’re giving out each year. But it’s something that we should consider for our students as wall because, again, there is a finite number of seats at our universities in America and we should first and foremost be focused on American students getting the training they need to succeed in our economy.
You know, you’ve always heard from bit tech and Silicon Valley how there’s not enough tech workers and they’ve got to have all these foreign workers come in on H-1B visas. I mean, I think the last couple weeks gimps a lot of that since every company in Silicon Valley is laying off a third of its workforce, so must not be in that much demand. They’re –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, TikTok’s laying off half.
SEN. COTTON: (Laughs.) Yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: I mean, not TikTok. Twitter’s laying off half of their workers.
SEN. COTTON: But if that’s the case, you know, why would we want to continue to give away seats in our universities just like we continue to give away, you know, H-1B visas for supposedly high-skilled workers, which are really not – I mean, they have important skills that require a college degree, but they’re things that Americans could easily do. I mean, they are not, like, making the next quantum computer. You know, they’re setting up information systems in offices and that kind of thing. Again, you’ve got to have high training – good training to do that, but it’s training that Americans could learn to do, especially young Americans who are going to colleges.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And there’s this blurry area between foreign students and H-1Bs, which you referred to, which is the Optional Practical Training program, OPT, where students – former students – I mean, they’re basically people on student visas, I mean, in a sense kind of masquerading as students. But really, simply, it’s a – it’s turned into a work visa program. And this is something that usually comes into discussion regarding Indians using the H-1B program because people from India are the biggest users of it. And I think it’s pretty clear that’s a kind of threat, national security, but India itself is not using this in the way that China is. But there’s a lot of Chinese students using this OPT program.
SEN. COTTON: Yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Is this something Congress should visit? Because it’s not authorized by statute. It’s just made up.
SEN. COTTON: I was going to say, calling OPT a blurry area is kind to OPT, Mark.
MR. KRIKORIAN: OK. Well –
SEN. COTTON: I would call it a fraud.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yes. (Laughter.)
SEN. COTTON: I mean, it’s not authorized by law. It was created towards the end of the Bush administration, which made – had many missteps on immigration policy, especially legal immigration policy. And it’s allowing so-called students – who are graduated and done with their education – to go out and enter the workforce without otherwise valid legal status, and again taking away jobs that Americans would be able to do. I think we’re up to well over a hundred thousand foreign nationals now on OPT status. And in certain fields they can do it for, you know, three years.
And again, these are not – it’s not like something where you have practical training. It’s not like going to medical school and then doing your internship and residency, which is still inherently part of the medical training. I mean, it’s like you get your degree in information management systems and you go work for some company, usually at wages lower than what Americans would make because you’re in this restricted status.
So I think the OPT program is – in essence, it’s a fraud. It was, again, created at the end of the Bush administration because employers were complaining that they were having to pay American workers too much and they couldn’t find American workers. And again, like, just look in the news in the last two weeks. There must be plenty of workers out there looking for jobs because every tech company in America is laying off a third of its workforce.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And just as sort of the – kind of the whipped cream on top of that issue is that OPT is actually subsidized because the employers don’t have to pay Social Security taxes on their workers, and so it’s about an 8 percent discount that taxpayers are paying to hire foreign, quote, “students” masquerading as workers. So it’s – really, it’s appalling.
The H-1B – the other thing on H-1B, your recent letter was about TikTok using H-1Bs, but there was also an earlier incident regarding Microsoft and Bing and Tank Man. This was the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. I think it was two years ago or whatever it was, where you type in “tank man” in Bing and nothing shows up. I mean, and so these – it’s not clear were their H-1Bs doing that or not, and so that’s something that seems to me Congress needs to get to the bottom of.
SEN. COTTON: Again, it’s just an example of the pervasive Chinese influence that you have in America.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right.
SEN. COTTON: You know, it’s like, you know, airlines and hotels, you know, are not allowed to list Taiwan in their – in their drop-down menus. I mean, Americans can fly on an American airplane, American airline to Taiwan and stay in an American hotel chain in Taiwan. We’re just – or, like our bureaucrats. If you listen to bureaucrats at the State Department, they always refer to the Taiwans. They never refer to the Taiwanese because saying “Taiwanese” would imply that there is a people, a nationality, which implies there is a nation known as Taiwan.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Interesting. Interesting.
SEN. COTTON: So it’s always the Taiwans. Again, it’s just an example of the crazy, crazy degree of influence that China has infiltrated in our society.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Now, what specifically is the vulnerability, for instance, with regard to TikTok? What kind of information are we worried about the Chinese Communist Party getting or using from that kind of example?
SEN. COTTON: Well, first off, TikTok is just terrible for America’s youth.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, yeah, obviously. I understand, yeah. (Laughter.)
SEN. COTTON: I look around the audience and I see a lot of – a lot of youngsters who are probably using TikTok two hours every night. There’s a reason why in China you can’t use TikTok for four hours a night. Like, they limit the amount of time that people can be on TikTok. They also mostly filter it out so it’s good, wholesome content about, you know, respecting your elders and eating your vegetables and studying hard.
MR. KRIKORIAN: No wonder they don’t want to watch it. (Laughs.)
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. So – but the kind of the – back-office risks of TikTok, not the videos you see and the kind of corrosive effect it has on the minds of America’s youth, is the data that it collects. And that data is there, and it’s permanent, and it’s going to be – can be used against our kids as they grow up in the adult – or not just kids, obviously. I mean, grownups use it, too. I mean, I think increasingly, you know, people in Washington are using it, trying to reach voters and communicate. That means they’re being exposed as well.
If you look at the fine print of TikTok’s terms and conditions, if you look under the hood of its application, it exposes all of your personal data, perhaps all the data you have on your device to collection and exploitation. And again, it’s not like, you know, if your 15-year-old daughter is, you know, watching videos of drum major routines that that’s going to put her at risk, but if it accesses every other bit of information on her phone, then that can put her at risk. And it puts her at risk for the rest of her life. I mean, this data doesn’t just disappear; it’s collected in troves by the Chinese Communist –
MR. KRIKORIAN: So if, like, 10 years, 15 years in the future she’s in a sensitive position or something, I think that’s the –
SEN. COTTON: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Interesting. That’s interesting.
SEN. COTTON: So I – let me just be clear.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, sure.
SEN. COTTON: If you have TikTok on your device, you should delete it from your device. And even better, you should probably go and buy a new device and not download TikTok on it.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Wow, it’s that serious.
SEN. COTTON: That would be my advice.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Under the Trump administration, Attorney General Sessions started something called China Initiative to address some of these issues. The Biden administration got rid of it, discontinued it. Is that something that, you know, we should restart? Or what are the – what are the problems with that? What are the dangers?
SEN. COTTON: Yeah, absolutely. It was a mistake by the Biden administration. They never quite explained why they stopped the China Initiative inside of the Department of Justice. I think the likely explanation is twofold, maybe threefold.
First, as with anything in the Biden administration, it was created in the Trump administration so they wanted to stop it.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. (Laughs.)
SEN. COTTON: Second, I think that to them it had undertones of racism and xenophobia and nativism, you know, just like in February of 2020 when I suggested the coronavirus didn’t originate in a food market, it probably came from a lab down the street where they were researching bat-based coronaviruses.
MR. KRIKORIAN: You were mocked for that, but now apparently it’s conventional wisdom.
SEN. COTTON: Well, yeah. I mean, most Americans with any common sense who looked at the evidence would say, like, obviously, it came from those labs. Now, I wasn’t just mocked. I was called a racist and a nativist and xenophobia by Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. So I think that’s the second reason.
A third reason is I suspect that, you know, Chinese diplomats leaned on the secretary of state and the attorney general not to be so zealous in trying to pursue Chinese espionage and Chinese threats. And as they often do, the Biden administration caved to that.
But I mean, the threat hasn’t changed. You know, Chris Wray has said that, you know, the lion’s share of counterintelligence cases in this country relate to Chinese espionage, whether it’s traditional espionage by, you know, spies here in Washington running out of the Chinese embassy or nontraditional espionage of the sorts we’ve been discussing – of, you know, sons of PLA researchers who are at advanced research institutions, just happen to sign up to the right programs, and then spiriting away the information when they can.
You know, in Arkansas we had a university professor at the University of Arkansas who was convicted of crimes related to having Chinese patents, just like the head of the Harvard Biochemistry Department, you know, probably – you know, just there was a conviction and sentencing just yesterday in one of these cases. So the threat is not going to go away. It’s still there. And you know, there’s some – I think there’s some enterprising and patriotic, you know, line attorneys in the U.S. attorneys offices across the country and FBI agents in the field offices across the country who are still pursuing this, but I worry that they don’t have the kind of robust support they have from the main Justice here in Washington.
MR. KRIKORIAN: In talking about whether the foreign students, foreign workers, whatever it is from China, I think people aren’t really – they’re assuming that those people are in a similar situation to someone coming from, say, India or Japan or England when, in fact, their family members at home in a sense are kind of hostages, so that even if somebody comes here as a student from China or a foreign worker or what have you – even if they really don’t like the CCP very much or aren’t really connected to the PLA, they don’t really have any choice if those institutions want to apply pressure to them. Isn’t that one of the real dangers here?
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. It’s a severe danger. And as you say, especially if you’re from, you know, a friendly nation, a democratic nation like the United Kingdom or Italy or Japan or Brazil, you’re not going to face that kind of coercion that threats could happen to your family back home. In China, that is a tool of statecraft.
And I think it’s important – you know, we’ve made the distinction here a few times between Chinese Americans – Chinese nationals who have naturalized here, had parents or grandparents or great-grandparents going back decades who naturalized here and are fellow citizens – and Chinese nationals, you know, subjects of the People’s Republic of China who are here on some kind of immigration status. We make that distinction. It’s important to understand that Xi Jinping and Chinese communists don’t make that distinction. So this is a risk even for Chinese Americans, even for those people who have immigrated here and become citizens. As long as they have family back in mainland China, Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party views those American citizens as theirs.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Interesting.
SEN. COTTON: And that risk is even doubly true when you’re talking about Chinese nationals who are here on some kind of immigration status. That why you see on university campuses in many cases the Confucius Institutes or whatever they’re calling themselves now become, in effect, enforcers for the Chinese Communist Party. They’re collecting on fellow Chinese nationals or, in many cases, Chinese Americans who still have families back in mainland China if they’re protesting, for instance, about Tibet or protesting about the Uyghur people who are subject to genocide in northwest China, if they’re protesting about Hong Kong. It's a pervasive threat. That’s just probably the most public aspect of it. But it’s also true, again, if you yourself as a young Chinese national would simply like to get a world-class education at one of our great institutions and don’t really want to spy for the Communist Party, that you’re subject to a lot of pressure and coercion because your family’s still back in the mainland.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right, right. There’s another immigration issue that China figures into. It’s not really so much a security issue, but it is important. And this is the – recalcitrant countries is kind of the shorthand term for it, because a lot of countries don’t want to take back their own citizens if they’ve committed a crime and are deportable. And in a sense you could sort of understand it. It’s sort of a hot potato. It’s like, well, these people are your problem now. China’s one of the worst offenders in this regard.
SEN. COTTON: Yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: What is it – I mean, what can we do more to actually apply pressure?
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. So an insane Supreme Court decision a couple decades ago says that if we have an illegal alien in our country, they’ve been ruled deportable under our laws but their home country won’t take them back, then we’re just stuck with them, and after about six months we have to release them into the country even though the law has already adjudicated them as not lawfully present. This is oftentimes a bigger problem under Democratic administrations. Sometimes it gets better under a Republican administration, as it did under the last one. The Trump administration was pretty good about using diplomacy and where necessary pressure to force countries like, say, Sierra Leone to take back more of its foreign nationals. China, obviously, is a different case. They’ve got a lot more leverage than smaller countries. But the Trump administration was successful somewhere there, too, but the Biden administration has, again, totally abandoned that, I think through a combination of opposition to anything Trump did; and undertones of racism and nativism and xenophobia; and just kowtowing to Chinese communists.
There are things we can do to put pressure on them. I’d suggest that most of what we should do is probably targeted towards Chinese Communist Party officials and the immigration system.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Like denying visas to their families, that sort of thing?
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. Denying visas to their families, denying student – yeah, student visas to their families, not letting them use the so-called I – reporter – visa to send in what are basically their propagandists. I mean, this is a specific problem, so I wouldn’t have a shotgun-blast approach to it. I’d have a targeted, specific approach to it, which I think we can use the leverage we have in our immigration system to say: If you want to get any of these visas that are not dangerous to our national interest, then you’re going to take back the Chinese nationals that are in this country that we have found removable.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Interesting. You mentioned this I visa. This is supposed to be for reporters, right? In other words, somebody from Reuters or the BBC or whatever who’s stationed here would have something like this. How are the Chinese using that? Because Chinese media is, obviously, not like the BBC – well, actually maybe it is more like the BBC than you’d like. (Laughter.) But it’s not – it’s not a free media. It’s a government – it’s an organ of the government.
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. So if you – if you think about it, a reporter inherently doesn’t need a long-term or recurring visa, you know. I’m sure the Chinese communists aren’t granting our reporters free and open access to Wuhan to research what happened there three years ago.
MR. KRIKORIAN: (Laughs.) And the Uyghur camps, too.
SEN. COTTON: Or the Uyghur camps as well. But typically, you’re coming in – or you’re, like, going to report on the Olympics or, you know, coming here to report, like, if Xi Jinping were to come for a summit in two years, coming here to report on something like that. So it’s supposed to be more they’re short term, they’re more targeted.
The Chinese Communist Party is trying to use these, though, to get, you know, reporters – which are really state-owned propaganda outfits – into America to influence the tone of coverage. Sometimes they’re using – rather than using those visas, because they are shorter-term and more focused, they’re trying to evade them by, say, getting H-1B visas for what are really, in effect, propagandists by calling them, you know, social media specialists or something like that.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, it’s a job Americans will do, so. (Laughter.) I don’t know if you dealt with this in your book “Only The Strong,” but there is sort of a broader issue and you’ve alluded to it a number of times, that we – I don’t think we are envisioning dealing with the People’s Republic of China in a different way than we deal with other countries. It was – in a sense, it was a lot clearer when we were dealing with the Soviet Union. Everybody sort of got that there was a threat from the Soviet Union. There is – there seems to be –
SEN. COTTON: Let’s not – let’s not –
MR. KRIKORIAN: OK, OK. Well, some people –
SEN. COTTON: Pass the rose-colored glasses.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, yeah. OK.
SEN. COTTON: A lot of Democrats, like Joe Biden and John Kerry, didn’t quite get it. (Laughs.)
MR. KRIKORIAN: That’s a good point. That’s a good point. But I mean, I think it was – let’s say it was more broadly understood that the Soviet Union – what kind of threat it was. There seems to not be that same or only maybe now people are getting that China’s different; that whether it’s reporters, whether it’s foreign students, whatever it is, it’s not the same as bringing people from other countries.
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. So during the Cold War with Soviet Russia, it is true that normal Americans of pretty much all stripes understood that Soviet Russia was our enemy and that they were a genuine threat. I don’t think you have that same – that whatever Joe Biden and John Kerry and Mike Dukakis –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Ted Kennedy.
SEN. COTTON: – and all the rest thought. But just normal Americans across the country understood that Soviet Russia was a genuine threat and the chief threat we faced. I don’t think you have that same widespread perception about China, even though China is deeply unpopular. They were deeply unpopular with the American people before the coronavirus pandemic as well. There’s lots of opinion polling that would suggest that.
I don’t think that as many Americans view them as an enemy, though. And that’s in large part, again, because our political class for 30 years kind of worked together to cast them as a partner, that China’s peaceful rise was going to somehow be beneficial for American workers and American communities and families. And that’s simply not been the case. It shouldn’t have been perceived that way at the time. There were plenty of people who opposed, for instance, the annual certification of most favored nation status for China. Bill Clinton used this as a campaign issue in 1992. There are some people who opposed strongly the granting of permanent most favored nation status and accepting China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which really set off in 2000/2001 the so-called China shock that accelerated the outsourcing of wholesale industries to China.
But again, this was celebrated and defended/promoted by our political class, even though it was widely known – I mean, it’s not – people can – we have translators. You don’t have to speak Mandarin. I mean, people knew that Deng Xiaoping used to talk about biding your strength and hiding – or, hiding your strength and biding your time. Like, you know, when a communist nation says we’re going to hide our strength and bide our time, you might want to take note of that and not do anything to give them more strength, which is what we did. We basically fueled the rise of China. And now it’s a threat unlike, I’d say, anything our nation has ever faced; much different, in my opinion more dangerous, than the Soviet Russian threat because Soviet Russia was not so deeply entangled with America’s economy. You know, we had largely two separate trading blocs in the world. There was some trade between our nations, but very, very little. And therefore –
MR. KRIKORIAN: And economically, they were much more anemic and weak, too.
SEN. COTTON: Economically, they were always much smaller than America. And that’s – or, when you look at the – you know, the free world and the Warsaw Pact bloc in the Cold War combined, the economies were just nothing like each other, whereas China’s economy is now almost the size of our own economy.
And again, the influence we have – we see here in America is pervasive across the world as well. You know, Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, just traveled to China with, you know, kind of their equivalent of, you know, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and basically kowtowed to Xi Jinping, repeating the exact same mistakes with Xi and China that his predecessors committed with Vladimir Putin and Russia, making Germany ever more dependent and entangled on access to the Chinese market and imports from China that companies have opened up there. So we’ve never quite faced a competitor that has an economy that can rival ours, therefore that can fund a military that can rival ours, and that is so deeply entwined in our own economy.
That’s why I’ve called for some time – I issued a report on this in the last Congress – for what I call strategic decoupling. We need to look at the areas where we’re most vulnerable to China and start to unravel those vulnerabilities. Sometimes it’s going to be cutting-edge things like China’s cornering of the market in what’s known as rare earths, rare earth elements. You know, the irony is they’re not that rare at all. You could probably go dig some up on the National Mall if you wanted to. What is rare is the mining and the manufacturing and the processing of them, which we’ve outsourced almost entirely to China. But sometimes it’s very low-tech, commonplace things like the ingredients, you know, for basic pharmaceuticals, things like heparin or acetaminophen, ibuprofen, penicillin. You know, we just don’t really make that in America anymore. It can be made in advanced countries. I mean, about a third of what we use here in America is from places like Japan and Austria and Italy, so it can be done in a cost-effective way and preferably it would be done here. But at least it shouldn’t be done in China, our main rival. We need to unravel all of these dependencies.
You know, if you buy your kids plastic toys for Christmas or you get your fake Christmas tree from China, that’s probably not going to put us at great risk in America. But if you’re getting lifesaving medicines or medical equipment or the kind of inputs like those rare earth elements that are essential for every modern electronic device, that’s a grave exposure that we never had with Soviet Russia.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So I know we only have a couple minutes left. I wanted to ask you about immigration maybe a little more broadly. What are you looking forward to seeing, both in the lame-duck session and then in the new Congress? What are you planning on doing? What do you think we’re going to be seeing?
SEN. COTTON: We’re not looking for what Chuck Schumer and all those Democrats were talking about yesterday, which is some kind of mass amnesty.
MR. KRIKORIAN: What’s going to stop them, though? That’s the issue.
SEN. COTTON: (Laughs.) I don’t think they’re going to be able to – they won’t get 60 votes for that in the Senate.
MR. KRIKORIAN: OK.
SEN. COTTON: And I don’t think they’d get 60 votes even if they put something more targeted into any kind of year-end spending bill. Obviously, in the new Congress we’ll have a Republican majority that I hope will be able to block the worst proposals that we were trying to fend off over the last two years when Democrats controlled both chambers. Unfortunately, some Republicans, I think, have softer views on immigration than I think our party should have.
One thing, though, that we haven’t really discussed at length today which is on the minds – foremost on the minds of most Americans is the fiasco at our southern border. And I think even though that’s a separate issue from legal immigration or non-immigrant visas, the security of our southern border is kind of a threshold issue, in that if the Biden administration doesn’t take more steps to get the border under control it’ll be hard to find any kind of consensus immigration approach that can earn my support or probably the support of most Republicans.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Do you get the sense from any of your Democratic colleagues that even if, say, especially with the end of Title 42 that they’re kind of looking into the abyss there? I mean, this administration has used Title 42 as the only limited immigration control measure that’s there, and that’s going to turn into a pumpkin next month. Is there no one on the Democratic side who realizes that maybe this is at least a political problem, if not a policy –
SEN. COTTON: I think so. Well, I think – you know, you saw a few throwaway votes, you know, that were then highlighted in campaign ads by Democratic senators up for reelection, so they recognize this is a political problem for them.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right.
SEN. COTTON: Now, they may think that because they had a better-than-expected election result that, you know, they dodged a bullet and it’s not that big an issue. I just – I don’t think that’s the case, especially, you know, if you’re a Democrat up in a state like Arizona or New Mexico who’s directly impacted by the fiasco at our southern border. You probably shouldn’t think that.
But really, I mean, when more than a hundred thousand Americans are dying each year from drug deaths, and that increase over the last 10 years is almost entirely – almost entirely – attributable to synthetic opioids coming from Mexico, I mean, every state’s a border state, whether it’s West Virginia or Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Montana, just to name a few places where you have Democratic senators up for reelection. So I hope my Democratic colleagues take it more seriously, but so far I’ve not seen much evidence of that.
MR. KRIKORIAN: We’ve only got a minute or two left. I wanted to give you a chance to sort of talk a little bit about your new book, just the title and, as they say, when you talk about a book you want to repeat the title over and over again.
SEN. COTTON: (Laughs.)
MR. KRIKORIAN: So it’s called “Only The Strong.”
SEN. COTTON: Yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And what is the – what’s the punchline?
SEN. COTTON: So “Only The Strong” is – the punchline, you say, is probably the subtitle, “Reversing the Left’s Plot to Sabotage American Power,” because the sense of decline that so many Americans have today is both genuine and real, but is also not an accident. It’s not bad luck. It didn’t just happen because Joe Biden or Barack Obama were president. They want American power to decline. They want America to retrench and pull in its horns and become a more normal nation. This is going back a hundred years to the Progressive era, with Woodrow Wilson, the patron saint of the Progressives, who openly rebuked and repudiated the Declaration and the Constitution and the moral foundation of America. Once you do that, it’s not a very long step to get to where you are in the ’60s and ’70s with the blame America first Democrats, as the great Jeane Kirkpatrick called them.
I’m not saying that they’re un-American. Well, I’m not saying they’re necessarily un-American – (laughter) – although a lot of them are. I’m saying that they think that America is more likely to be a source of war and arrogance and oppression in the world than safety and freedom and prosperity, and therefore they undermine the wellspring and the foundation of American power. That’s true of our military. That’s true of American energy production. It’s true of our immigration system, especially our borders.
MR. KRIKORIAN: That’s what I was going to ask, is how does the immigration figure into that?
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. So, I mean, a nation without borders is not a nation. I mean, that’s the most fundamental thing. Like, you look at a map – any 5-year-old can look at a map and see what makes a country a country, at least at the most elemental level. And the Biden administration has basically erased that border that we have with Mexico, and look at the consequences of it from rising crime and drug deaths, and to say nothing of all the issues we’ve been discussing on how an adversary like China can exploit our legal immigration system.
And then in the second part of the book I lay out kind of a roadmap to rebuild our power. We’ve been in dire straits before. You know, look, it only took one election in 1980 to help turn things around, even after a disappointing midterm election in 1978. So it’s kind of a history of how we got to where we are, how the Democratic left has been intentionally and purposefully sabotaging American power, and how we can rebuild it.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, good. I know you have to run. You’ve got another appointment. I really appreciate it, Senator Tom Cotton. The book is “Only The Strong.” I assume it’s on Amazon. And you announced you’re not going to be – you’ve not thrown your hat in the ring for 2024. Is that correct?
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. So we have a 7-year-old and a – and a 5-year-old, and I’m pretty sure Republican primary voters can find another nominee and probably a good one. But I know my boys won’t be able to find another dad to teach them how to hit a fastball and read a book over the next two years. (Laughter.)
MR. KRIKORIAN: OK. Well, you focus on that. I appreciate your coming in. I just want to do a plug. This whole program is going to be on our website at CIS.org. We have a website – we have a podcast, Parsing Immigration Policy. Maybe, actually, we’ll see if you’d be willing, Senator, to come on at some point, maybe next year. You’re going to be reintroducing the RAISE Act, is that correct?
SEN. COTTON: I am, with Senator-elect Katie Britt as a new co-sponsor.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Oh, OK. Good. She’s a new incoming senator from Alabama, is that correct?
SEN. COTTON: Yeah. Alabama, yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Very good. Well, thank you very much. Thanks, everybody, for coming. And we’ll look forward to what you’re going to be doing in the next Congress. Thank you.
SEN. COTTON: Thank you, Mark. Thanks to CIS. (Applause.)