The ITAR/Immigration Bifecta of Suck

I know I’ve written about this topic before, but I think it’s worth bringing it up again. When you combine the stupidity of ITAR as it exists with the difficulty of getting even a green-card for your typical foreign engineering student studying in the US, you get a particularly pathetic situation. While they’re in school, they can get plenty of training, they can even work on aerospace related research (there are certain exemptions in ITAR for research done at places like universities). But then when they graduate, they’re screwed.  They only have two options, either go home, or find a job outside aerospace.

This point was driven home to me talking with an India-born aerospace engineering student at the University of Michigan last week.  I was out there giving a talk on space entrepreneurship, and afterward this gal comes up to me to ask for help on what to do about work after graduation. She loves being in America, and doesn’t want to leave. She loves aerospace, and it has been her passion.  But wunderkinden in DC think that somehow preventing her from using her hard-won education to benefit our country is somehow protecting national security or protecting our borders. Conversations like this just make me sick inside. Here’s a talented young lady who wants to contribute to our society.  But because of a combination of stupid laws, that politicians aren’t willing to change for fear of looking “soft on defense” or “weak on immigration”, I bet there are thousands or tens of thousands of foreign-born engineering students facing similarly crappy choices.

I just think about my coworker Ian. Here’s an enormously talented GN&C engineer, who did amazing things at Masten, and is making a huge contribution at Altius. The only reason why he wasn’t screwed by ITAR and Immigration laws was because he was from Cuba, and due to Florida politics, Cubans have a much easier time getting a green card and eventual citizenship.  Had he been born on a different island in the Caribbean, it would’ve been official US policy to tell him to go take a flying leap and work for some other country.

I have to agree with @joestump’s tweet: “If Obama was serious about us out-innovating and out-building, we should be granting every law abiding immigrant w/ a degree legal status.”

In the end I was able to give this young lady a suggestion on how to proceed. I suggested that she find a job outside of aerospace (and outside of ITAR-covered technologies) that required similar skills to the job she wants to do inside aerospace. That way she could work for a few years until she could get green-card status, and then she could move back to aerospace. In her case it worked, but I wonder how often our shortsighted policies mean that we’re training engineers for foreign countries who would rather stay here and be Americans.

Something needs to change.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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34 Responses to The ITAR/Immigration Bifecta of Suck

  1. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Preach it!

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  3. John Smith says:

    W00t! Immigrants FTW, specially from Cuba! What would Tony Montana do?

  4. Bill Hensley says:

    You are absolutely correct. I work in the engineering software business and the hoops you have to go through to hire a qualified foreigner who is already in this country are ridiculous! Every talented, hardworking person who immigrates to this country is contributing to our prosperity and keeping us ahead of our international competition. Why send smart people home?

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  6. Pete says:

    Because they are taking away jobs from smart Americans – from what I can tell it is motivated by protectionism.

  7. Paul Roberts says:

    Yes, the US has dug itself a huge hole with the ITAR boondoggle. As a Canadian space engineer who would love to use more American technology or even American subcomponents in some of the work we do, it is proving ever more difficult to do so, even for our American customers. Because of the draconian enforcement and the imprecise definitions and regulations small companies simply refuse to do business with non Americans, no matter how bona fide we are and no matter how much money we are prepared to spend.

    Similarly, larger companies who have invested in internal ITAR police, place huge hurtles in front of any technology access, even when one is trying to provide them with a service. Everything they do is deemed ITAR controlled simply because so few things are defined as not controlled. Because the laws directly punish both the senior executives and the individual clerks for even honest mistakes due to regulatory incoherance, these people naturally make it very, very hard to jump through the many hoops they put in place.

    Heaven forbid that I, as an engineer with 25 years experience, should want to bring that experience to the US to benefit a US company. By defninition, if someone wants to hire you, you have a skill that they find valuable. Denying yourself (the US) the ability to attract those with skills you want hardly seems to be the way to excell in any industry.

    And, of course, it wouldn’t be so bad if the reasons for the ITAR regulations weren’t actually forcing the very competitor they were supposed to repress to excell and beat the US out of contracts that used to be American pretty much by default. These regualtions have spawned, or spurred on, satellite industries in several countries since their inception. Each of these competitors is taking away US business and, at the same time, creating their own technology bases to further compete with American companies.

    In supposedly protecting themselves, American legislators have effectively both strangled the industry and enhanced their competitors.

    It’s enough to make you cry. If I was American, I would.


  8. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Exactly. BTW, you’re on the short list of foreign engineers I’d be calling today if ITAR didn’t exist.


  9. Ed Minchau says:

    “If Obama was serious about us out-innovating and out-building, we should be granting every law abiding immigrant w/ a degree legal status.”

    Glenn Reynolds has made repeated reference to a “higher education bubble” in the US, but it isn’t just an American problem – the same problem exists throughout the industrialized world. There are too many who are “credentialed but not educated”, and likewise too many autodidacts who would slip through the cracks.

  10. wodun says:

    It is a problem that exists in industries other than aerospace as well. There are many companies that have opened up offices in Canada because it is easier to import employees up there. It is too bad that ITAR makes the problem even worse for aerospace.

    This really could be a situation for some bi-partisan immigration reform since it dovetails nicely with both parties positions on immigration but it would probably be easier to do something about it when our unemployment drops a percent or two.

    Which would be easier, changing ITAR or changing immigration policies?

  11. Paul Roberts says:

    >>BTW, you’re on the short list of foreign engineers I’d be calling today if ITAR didn’t exist.

    Flattery (and a paycheque) will get you anywhere, big boy. 🙂

    >>Which would be easier, changing ITAR or changing immigration policies?

    Changing ITAR, I suspect.

    Immigration is a super-nasty sore point for you guys lately, so I’d avoid that like the plague. But ITAR is pretty much under the radar for most Americans. There are a lot of hot buttons in there, but if congress is still determined to keep out the evil Chinese (a laudable goal, coming from one whose government’s internal computers & databases seem to have been hacked by Chinese persons looking for finance, business and defence research info [true breaking news up here today!]) then the regulations can be structured much more closely to restrict exactly what it is they don’t want passed on.

    As it stands, if I, as a Canadian, design a set of gears for a space mechanism and send the drawings that _I_ produce to an American company to simply machine the gears, they have to get an export permit to send parts I designed back to me. WTF??? The company doesn’t see the mechanism, or how it works or know the loads or anything else about the mechanism, but if they are for a space application, then State gets involved, my parts get delayed 2-3 months and I get hosed the $2-$10K to support doing the paperwork on the machineshop’s side.

    If I design the very same gears for a precision medical robot and send them to the same shop, they send the parts right back, no hassles at all.

    And we Canadians are the “good guys”!

    You guys are cutting off your entire head to spite your face on this one and yet no-one seems to be able to explain this coherantly enough to get politicians to actually get together & change the laws to something that makes sense _and_ keeps your real secrets secure.


  12. Tom D says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily call it protectionism (though there is probably some of that too). I’ve worked with a lot of immigrant engineers in aerospace and my company struggles with ITAR every day. I wish we could drop ITAR and massively increase legal immigration, but that appears to be wishful thinking. Congress and the Administration were too busy messing up the health care and insurance industries to get to either ITAR and immigration last year (much less a budget).

  13. Tom D says:

    ITAR is currently driving me wild as an American aerospace engineer too. Considering how much consumer electronics is now manufactured in China, etc. It seems quite ludicrous to kill the US aerospace industry too. Isn’t hyper-regulated modern life fun?

  14. Karl Hallowell says:

    When I worked at JP Aerospace in Sacramento (2006-2009), this was a problem for us. JP Aerospace is a non-profit aerospace research group that currently launches mostly high altitude experimental, unmanned balloons. It also does balloon-based rocketry (the part that fell afoul of ITAR, so I understand).

    At one point before my time, Jim “J.P.” Powell had invited a school group from what I understand was Poland to visit the JP Aerospace facilities. This group was sponsored by the Department of State, who I dimly recall, had arranged the visit as part of a larger tour of places of scientific and technological interest.

    The trip was canceled by another part of the Department of State, the part that handles ITAR. The only thing J.P. got was an apology.

    Since its creation, it’s been pretty much universally acknowledged that ITAR is very harmful to the US aerospace industry, transparency in related federal government agencies such as NASA, and global communication of aerospace ideas and technology. I understand US researchers can’t legally speak at research conferences about certain well known knowledge (in rocketry, encryption, etc) because of ITAR.

    Legislatively, ITAR is one of the easiest low lying fruit for any presidential administration interested in cutting space-related obstacles. Why it is still up, harming the future of the US, I have no idea.

  15. Nels says:

    I’ll bet that any politician making a serious attempt to fix ITAR becomes the low-hanging fruit for being labeled soft on defense, reckless, naive, or worse by opposing politicians, especially at a time when China-bashing is good politics. After all, ITAR in its current damaging form has its origins in a political food fight.

  16. john hare says:

    I was shocked to learn that my blue sky concept blogging was theoretically illegal.

  17. David Gadbois says:

    It is probably going too far to say that any legal immigrant with a degree should be given citizenship. Let’s narrow it down to *useful* degrees. None of these lesbian eskimo studies majors.

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  19. Peterh says:

    Having a degree from a US university, legally attended, shouldn’t be enough for citizenship. But if they can pass a background check looking for criminality or hostility to this country and can secure employment I can see granting them temporary resident status and a green card.

  20. Alan says:

    I work with a lot of male & female engineering students at a number of Universities who are graduating this year. They are busting their butts (one of them (she) is building a 3-axis Kalman Filter from the basics w/o having taken a class on it – plus doing some kick-ass DSP work) doing some excellent aerospace work for their senior design projects.

    They would really like to work in aerospace but they can’t find anyone in the field to hire them. They just happen to be US Citizens but are not in an “aerospace engineering” program from Stamford, Cornell, Michigan, MIT, etc.

    So I suggest you stop raging against the machine because the foreign UofM female student with the F-1 wants to stay and instead try to work within the system and find or employ the just as good female (and male) students graduating that are US Citizens.


  21. Mike Lorrey says:

    Sorry, seeing 90% of formerly US manufacturing capacity now moved to China, along with the jobs, the GDP, without the promised liberalization of the chinese economy, and now all our IT jobs going to India, I have absolutely no problem with having lots of protectionism for our entrepreneurial space industry until it makes up a significant portion of our economy. The libertarian idea of “voting with your feet” is a pedantically simplistic one that fails in a world where nobody is acting in good faith, and people value low prices more than they value freedom for other people.

  22. john hare says:


    I would argue a couple of points with you if I wasn’t in such a lousy mood. I’ll wait until I am thinking positively enough to do useful posts.

  23. A_M_Swallow says:

    The Chinese economy will liberalize when they run out of peasants to turn into factory workers, the products go out of date and the newly rich people want to spend some of their wealth on politics. This time is coming.

  24. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    It’s not like I have a lot of choice, now is it? Seriously, there have been several times where I’ve known a subject-matter expert in an area who happened to be Canadian, but I didn’t know any of their counterparts in the US. I still think it’s sucky that ITAR plus immigration makes it hard for talented foreign students that want to be part of America to participate. Because quite frankly, it’s not always guaranteed that the US student is going to be the best person for the job.


  25. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Cute bit of nativism there. However, seeing as how China (which has about 4x our population) is only barely catching up with the US’s manufacturing output (measured in $ of value add), I think that saying that the US has gotten rid of 90% of it’s manufacturing to China is…a stretch. If there was a way to make it so the economically illiterate protectionists were the only ones suffering from their misguided policies, then maybe I’d be more willing to just shrug stuff like this off. The fact is that the US is still producing a lot more of the high-value stuff than China is, and that making it easier for foreign students to stay and work in the US would actually help strengthen our lead in the high-tech, high-value side of things. Calling it “protection” when you forcibly prevent US companies from hiring the best and most talented people for the job (at least some of the time–in many cases the best person might be American anyway, but you can’t count on that universally), seems like a bit of a joke…like most protectionist arguments.

    Sorry if I sound a little bitter about that. I spent two years living in a third world country, watching my friends suffer in poverty that’s almost entirely self-inflicted, because they listened to arguments like yours.


  26. A_M_Swallow says:

    Protected industries have almost no exports. Outside the country the protection stops so they are expensive and frequently poor quality. (Good quality products that are cheap do not need protection.)

  27. Spencer Freeman says:

    So, this is out of date but I can report, as a Canadian with a master’s in aerospace from CalTech, that absolutely nothing has changed. I have returned to Canada after being told, by SpaceX and many others that there was no way they could hire me. The craziness of ITAR can be seen by looking at NAMMO. A very senior engineer at this company based in Norway cannot work for their office in the US.

    I reiterate for those ITAR protectionists; Canadians are the good guys!

  28. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    That’s awful, but thank you for sharing. People don’t get how painfully stupid our policies are sometimes. Is America really better off by helping you get a great education then sending you home to compete? ITAR is getting mildly better, but I wish they’d treat close allies differently than they do enemies. But that would make sense, we can’t do that.


  29. Bob Steinke says:

    It would be nice if they would treat our allies differently than our enemies, but it seems like the philosophy is they treat people they have control over (i.e. can throw in jail) differently that people they don’t have control over. It seems like their actions are driven by a really insecure control-freak attitude.

  30. George Turner says:

    The precautions are required because there are many American cities that Canada could hit with an Estes rocket. They can already hit Detroit with a ‘C’ engine!

    Anyway, I wonder if the policy stems from some of the British spy scandals and US intelligence worries that they couldn’t track down leaks from allies? If they were to update their policies perhaps they’d now allow Canadians full clearance while keeping anyone in the White House in the dark, just based on where the incredibly damaging breaches have been coming from lately.

  31. George,

    The White House and Israel…

    I’d love to see an ITAR policy that treated our friends as friends and our “friends” as “friends”…


  32. Bob Steinke says:

    There are some interesting diplomacy implications here. If the ITAR regulations contained a de-facto list of nations that we actually trust that might cause some complications for our diplomats who might prefer things like that stay ambiguous. There might be pressure coming from areas we don’t think about.

  33. Bob Steinke says:

    Of course, that would still be a case of the government deciding that what’s important is to make the government’s job easier rather than to maximize our economic output and use that to maintain an advantage over our “friends”.

  34. Bob,
    I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what’s going on here. China is both one of our most important trading partners, and one of our potential rivals that the military worries most about. So rather than putting China in a more stringent ITAR category and having them get ticked off and hurt our trading efforts, they screw everyone.

    Ironically the Commerce Department with its EAR actually does have restrictions more based on the country in question, so it is possible. But the State Department would rather keep ITAR the way it is.


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