Trump’s efforts to tighten immigration ignore the contributions of foreign-born workers

Trump’s efforts to tighten immigration ignore the contributions of foreign-born workers

Originally Published in The Washington Post

Bruce Peabody and Harvey Lodish - July 16, 2020

On Tuesday, the Trump administration backed off an earlier planto end F-1 visas for international students unless they attended in-person classes on U.S. campuses. This marked the latest twist in a dizzying set of new U.S. immigration policies in recent weeks.

The fight over the F-1 visas follows a June executive order by President Trump blocking visas for temporary foreign workers, including H-1B visas for those with specialized skills. Business leaders and immigration advocates remain critical of the suspension of H-1B visas.

Tuesday’s Rose Garden news conference remarks by Trump suggest immigration matters remain at the top of the White House agenda. But what’s the real relationship between immigrants and U.S. economic development?

The administration says these rules put Americans first

Dozens of schools and state officials had balked at the F-1 plan, citing the need for online education in the face of the continued threat of covid-19 transmission. The administration’s reversal on F-1 visas came after 19 states, the District of Columbia and a number of U.S. universities initiated lawsuits to block the rule.

The administration defended the new student visa rules by saying they would “encourage U.S. schools to reopen” this fall, which would be good for American students, families and the national economy. The president similarly justified the suspension of H-1B visas for overseas workers with special skills by arguing they represented “an unusual threat” in taking away jobs and hampering the economic recovery.

The U.S. has long attracted skilled immigrants

Over 50 years ago, the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 increased immigration rates and replaced an older quota system that gave preference to white, northern Europeans. The new law prioritized immigration visas for three groups: refugees, those with close ties to family already legally established in the U.S. and foreign nationals with special skills or training.

Thus, for more than half a century, the premise of U.S. immigration policy has been admitting foreign businesspeople, students, scientists and technicians based on merit and ability, rather than race and cultural familiarity promotes U.S. education, industry and economic performance.

What’s the evidence that immigrants contribute to the economic development of the United States? MIT, for instance, owes much of its success as a premier research and teaching institution to the talents of its foreign-born teachers, technicians, researchers and students. More than 43 percent of the MIT faculty were born outside the U.S. Almost 100 alumni, faculty and researchers affiliated with the university have won Nobel Prizes — within this group, more than one-third were foreign born.

Across U.S. universities, foreign-born researchers and teachers are concentrated in high-growth STEM fields. A Congressional Research Service report reveals almost a quarter of all STEM undergraduates and about half of all STEM graduate students are foreign-born, many of whom will remain in this country and work after graduation. Without students and workers from outside the U.S., it’s difficult to see how the current successes of U.S. scientific research and innovation could continue.

Immigrants fuel innovation

Immigrants in universities are not only integral to the U.S. learning and teaching environment, but they are also central in U.S. academic and business leadership, training a new generation of researchers and professionals.

Consider the National Academy of Sciences, arguably the most prestigious U.S. professional organization in the sciences. Annually, the NAS elects a select group of the nation’s most distinguished scientific scholars, with the stipulation that these researchers must be American citizens. Over a recent six-year period, one-third of NAS inductees were foreign-born, hailing from nations as diverse as China, Guatemala, Hungary, Iran, South Africa, Syria, Turkey and Vietnam.

Immigrants have become fixtures in innovation hubs like Boston and Silicon Valley and leaders in their fields. One recent report found immigrants have started more than half of America’s start-ups valued at $1 billion or more. The U.S. Patent Office reports inventors born outside the U.S. file about half of the hundreds of thousands of new patents each year.

Are U.S. jobs at stake?

Research and government studies don’t support the president’s claims that these foreign workers take jobs away from native-born Americans. The H1-B visa program halted by the president is designed to attract essential skills and training in short supply in the U.S. labor pool. The supply of employer-sought high-skill workers is often concentrated in specific global regions, leading to employee shortfalls. Thus, as the Brookings Institution has reported, while more than half of the world’s engineering degrees are earned in Asia, just 4 percent of the global total are issued to U.S. students. The H1-B program helps correct this disjuncture between supply and demand.

In fact, the president’s H1-B executive order recognizes foreign workers are essential. It directs administration officials to create rules exempting immigrants critical to our security needs, those conducting research to help the nation “combat COVID-19” and anyone facilitating “the immediate and continued economic recovery of the United States.”

While the link between H1-B workers and business and research innovation seems clear enough, the American system of higher education is also dependent upon foreign students for its financial survival. An open secret in universities is that international students pay more than their classmates to study in the United States, effectively subsidizing education for U.S. students. Here’s an example: In four-year public institutions, the average international student pays almost three times the in-state tuition amount.

In an era of state budget cuts to higher education — not to mention the uncertainties of fall enrollments clouded by the coronavirus — the boost from international students is especially important. According to the Department of Commerce, international students contributed almost $45 billion to U.S. GDP in 2018, and helped create or support over 450,000 U.S. jobs.

This fall offers an uncertain road for millions of students, workers and employers whose lives have been disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic. But the track record of U.S. universities, businesses and economic innovation suggests foreign-born students, teachers, doctors and Nobel laureates would continue to contribute to the route forward.


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