The US economy is driven by immigration, with immigrants supporting vital industries, paying huge sums in taxes, looking after children and the elderly, preserving American innovation, and perhaps most importantly, they have made the country a more attractive destination for multinational investment.
Over the past few years, President Donald Trump’s policy, the Covid-19 crisis, and the end of the great Mexican immigration wave … were the reasons for the obvious curbing of immigration. With the continued deterioration of the economy, the spread of the epidemic, and the distorted image of the United States in the eyes of most of the world … the new team, Joe Biden, will face an uphill battle to restore population flows to a good level, but there are still some important measures that he can take.
There is no doubt that the prominent humanitarian issues of asylum seekers and refugees and the detention centers of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Center, will occupy a large part of the debate about immigration, as evidenced by the focus on Biden’s selection of immigration specialist Alejandro Mayuras to head the Department of Homeland Security, but while these are important issues, Biden cannot forget other types of immigration, especially the influx of foreign researchers and students.
Last June, Trump issued an executive order suspending new visas for foreign researchers. This was a very strange procedure at a time when the United States was racing to develop new vaccines and treatments for a new epidemic disease. But it is also a very bad long-term economic strategy.
If China is the world’s workshop, the United States is its research complex. The focus of high-value industries in America depends critically on having the best research universities, which in turn depend mainly on attracting the best and brightest scientists from around the world. Just as Silicon Valley needs engineers to move from other cities, and just as Houston cannot train everyone in the energy industry locally, the United States, which has less than 5% of the world’s population, needs to attract researchers from abroad to maintain its first position as a science center. As clear evidence of this fact, he noted that the co-founder and chairman of the American company Moderna, whose vaccine promises to save millions of Americans from “Covid-19”, is Lebanese by birth.
So Biden should immediately repeal the order prohibiting entry of foreign researchers. His administration must also act decisively to remove all organizational and administrative barriers that the Trump administration has built up over the years that make it difficult for foreign researchers to live and work in the United States. These barriers include the difficulty of obtaining green cards, and the prevention of spouses of visa holders from working.
Many foreign researchers are not actually employees, but students. In today’s mixed public and private research ecosystem, graduate students serve as the backbone of many laboratories, often becoming permanent immigrants upon graduation. And in many fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, foreign graduate students have become indispensable.
Trump has made vigorous and concerted efforts to deter foreign students from studying in the United States, and much of that has taken the form of rhetoric, minor administrative changes, or planned restrictions that have not yet been implemented, but have had a major impact. These small measures and threats have combined over time, causing a low international enrollment rate.
Biden must reverse all of these changes. In addition to making it easier for foreign students to obtain and maintain visas, and work longer after graduation, Biden can use strong and candid rhetoric to make clear that the United States welcomes international students. Not only will this help maintain US dominance in science and technology, but it will also help college-town economies, which depend on outside funds that university students inject into local businesses.
In addition to researchers and students, Biden could bring many benefits to the United States by making green card acquisition easier and faster for all immigrants. While science is of paramount importance, immigrants in general contribute significantly to the increase in tax revenue.
Another reason immigrants are so important is that most of them are skilled individuals, even those without a university education. Moving to another country for work is in itself an indication of boldness, risk taking and entrepreneurship. Recent research papers by economist Ed Lazear and others have shown that although the immigration system is formally based on family reunification, it tends to select people who are economically successful.
Facilitating green cards and visas could bring Biden some backlash from those who believe that immigrants are primarily competing with native-born Americans for jobs. Indeed, immigration through legal channels tends to create more jobs than they do, and you will have a hard time penetrating the misconceptions that have been formed through anti-immigrant rhetoric.
But even if it is politically difficult, Biden needs to prioritize foreign researchers and students, because the United States needs these workers, and neither the epidemic nor the Trump era have changed this fact.
The writer is Associate Professor of Finance at Stony Brook University
To be published in a special arrangement with the “Washington Post and Bloomberg News Service”