Trump’s recent address to Congress highlighted his pride in America’s status as the land of innovation and progress. However, very few of the innovations that America proudly claims would have been possible without immigrants: Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies have founders that are immigrants or the children of immigrants; 30% of American-based Nobel laureates were born outside of America; Immigrants founded 24% of US engineering and technology start-ups, 43% of start-ups based in Silicon Valley, and 20% of the Inc. 500 companies. Additionally, immigrants contributed to 60% of patent filings from innovative companies and authored more than 40% of the international patent applications filed by the US government.
The Trump administration’s policies reducing immigration in furtherance of its goal to “Make America Great Again” beg the question: Can America be great without immigrants? While the details of these policies remain obscure, the overarching goal is clear: to reduce the number of immigrant workers in America. On January 27, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order suspending the entry of refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa. Soon after, the White House described plans to upend the work-visa programs to reduce the number of foreign employees in America, and on March 3, USCIS announced that it would temporarily suspend expedited processing for all H1-B visa petitions. Without questioning legality, morality, or efficacy, this article examines the potential impact of the current administration’s immigration policies on America’s capacity to remain a nation on the cutting edge of innovation and progress.
Although the executive order was since halted in court and the USCIS processing policy would only impact a small number of visa applications, many American technology companies have opposed these policies because they make recruitment of highly skilled workers more difficult. More than 120 tech companies signed an amicus brief opposing the executive order, which explained that their success as profitable, innovative companies depends upon their ability to select the best and brightest minds in their respective fields. Additionally, more than 31,000 faculty at American universities signed a letter opposing the order, noting that it could “potentially lead to departure of many talented individuals who are current and future researchers and entrepreneurs in the US.” While the order affects only about 2% of the immigrant population, in some cases, these immigrants are highly educated and over-represented in top positions in science, technology and medicine fields. The administration’s overall goal to reduce the number of foreign workers and make jobs more available for Americans ignores the shortage of Americans who possess the skills and education to fill these jobs.
These policies increase cost and risk for companies hiring skilled workers from overseas. In the short time that the executive order was in effect, more than 60,000 already-approved visas were revoked, causing the cancelation of job interviews and business meetings and stranding thousands of students and employees overseas, unable to work. Further, immigration policies that make foreigners feel unsafe or unwelcome may make the US a less attractive choice for employees and students at the tops of their respective fields. If American companies cannot hire the best and brightest in science, medicine, and technology, progress in these industries is sure to stall. Politics aside, the brightest minds in the world are unlikely to choose America when there is a possibility that they may be stopped at the border despite holding a valid visa.