View on Statue of Liberty's torch
By Girish Mhatre
What’s at stake?
To effectively compete, America must continue to attract and retain global talent in science and engineering, particularly foreign students. America’s economic and technological leadership rests on it in an increasingly bipolar world.
He could have been anybody. Middle-aged, but still boyishly trim, casually dressed, a puffy jacket draped across his arm, he blended easily into the throng of protesters at SFO one January morning in 2017. The night before, America’s new president had peremptorily closed the borders to travelers and refugees from seven Muslim countries. Lawyers and politicians had quickly joined ordinary citizens at the airport in raucously protesting the ban. But the man stood quietly, alone. To a reporter’s question, he replied simply, “I’m here because I’m a refugee.” In the scrum, not many people had recognized Google cofounder Sergey Brin.
Brin was only 6 when his family fled the Soviet Union to escape Jewish persecution. But they wouldn’t have made it in 2017 were it up to the senior policy adviser to the new president and principal architect of his administration’s immigration policy, Stephen Miller, who has been quoted as saying, “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched American soil.”
There is no dearth of evidence to suggest that Miller’s policies were both shortsighted and counterproductive. New research shows it is immigration that has long sustained American hegemony in science and technology. Remembering that fact will be the key to competing with China, a nation that welcomes very few immigrants and is scrambling to lure its own emigres back home.
Rich history of immigration
Had Stephen Miller been around in the early third of the 20thcentury, he may not have welcomed another middle-aged Jewish refugee. Fleeing Nazi Germany, Albert Einstein, already a world-famous scientist, arrived in New York aboard the SS Westernland in 1933 at the invitation of Princeton’s newly created Institute for Advanced Study.
Over time, Einstein’s presence at a major U.S. university raised the prestige of U.S. higher education, which eventually became an enduring magnet for talent from all over the world. His singular contribution to the Allied victory in World War II may have been his letter (cowritten with another refugee scientist, Leo Szilard) urging FDR to counter the incipient German nuclear threat.
Most certainly, Miller and Co. would not have welcomed Abdulfattah “John” Jandali, a Syrian immigrant whose son, Steve Jobs, went on to found what is today the largest company on Earth. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is unequivocal: “Apple would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do.”
Sundar Pichai, who picked up the mantle of Google CEO from Brin and his cofounder Larry Page, echoes Cook: “Immigration has contributed immensely to America’s economic success, making it a global leader in tech, and also [made] Google the company it is today.” Pichai was born in India, as were the CEOs of several American tech giants: Microsoft (Satya Nadella), IBM (Arvind Krishna), Adobe (Shantanu Narayen), Micron Technology (Sanjay Mehrotra), Microchip Technology (Ganesh Moorthy) and many others. They’re immigrants responsible for creating jobs and advancing their adopted country’s leadership in technological innovation. If you think in terms of a “war” between America and China for economic and technological supremacy, you might think of these CEOs as our front-line generals.
“But,” you might protest, “These are mere anecdotes. Not every immigrant is a genius or a visionary entrepreneur.” Correct. But not everyone has to be a genius or a visionary to create a collective positive impact as a cohort.
NYU professor Petra Moser and her colleagues have compiled empirical evidence of what could be termed the “immigrant cohort impact,” specifically on U.S. scientific breakthroughs, by studying an earlier immigration wave – when Jewish scientists fled Nazi Germany. Their studies showed that “American invention received an enormous boost from the arrival of the émigrés. In fields that received an émigré, U.S. inventors produced more than 30 percent additional patents after 1932. These benefits persisted until the end of the 1960s.” The arrival of refugee scientists increased American inventions by bringing U.S. scientists in contact with a new set of ideas and methods that they could use in their own work. Says Moser, “Historical records tell us that these immigrants revolutionized U.S. science.”
That innovation is the progenitor of economic growth – increases in jobs, markets, profits – is an article of faith among economists. Now, as researchers like Moser delve deeper into historical data, they are finding out just how big an impact immigrants have had on innovation – and therefore on the economic might of America – across several fronts: science, invention and entrepreneurship.
To quantify immigrants’ contributions to invention, Shai Bernstein and his Stanford colleagues studied patents filed between 1976 and 2012. “The results are very consistent,” Bernstein reported. “Immigrants contribute disproportionately to innovation. They’re responsible for 16 percent of the inventor population, but 22 percent of the total patents and roughly the same number if we’re looking at citations.” That translates into a roughly 40 percent increase in the relative contribution of immigrant over native-born inventors to innovation.
Further, the Stanford team calculated the economic value of patents over the 1976–2012 period. “Almost 25 percent of the economic value created through innovation among public companies is created by immigrants,” they reported. Relative to their share in the population, this reflects a 50 percent increase in their contribution in economic value.
In their study on immigrant entrepreneurship across all fields, both high tech and low, economists Sari Pekkala Kerr and William Kerr found that first-generation immigrants – 14 percent of the overall U.S. population – create about 25 percent of all new businesses in the United States. This percentage jumps to 40 percent in some heavily immigrant-populated states like California and New York.
Dearth of immgrants in China
While America is a nation of immigrants, China is not. Which means that the Chinese economy does not benefit from the innovation that diversity breeds. There are only a million foreign-born residents in China, compared with 50 million in the U.S, even though China’s population is four times larger.
That vulnerability is a fact not lost on the Chinese government.
According to a 2020 Brookings Institution report, “Chinese officials see the United States’ continued ability to attract and retain Chinese talent as a serious impediment to their technological ambitions.” President Xi Jinping has often described talent as “the first resource” in China’s efforts to achieve “independent innovation.” In 2016, the Chinese Communist Party created its “Outline of the National Innovation-Driven Development Strategy,” writing that “the essence of being innovation-driven is being talent-driven.”
It’s not all talk. China is actively reclaiming human capital from the United States, primarily through the Thousand Talents Plan, a Chinese government program designed to lure home talented Chinese graduate students and university professors with incentives to start businesses or contribute to scientific research. Launched in 2008, the plan has recruited thousands of researchers from countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore, Canada, Japan, France and Australia.
To effectively compete, America must ensure it continues to attract and retain global talent, particularly foreign students. In 2015, nearly 80 percent of U.S. graduate students in computer science and electrical engineering were foreign nationals, younger versions of Sundar Pichai and his fellow Indian tech CEOs, all of whom came here as graduate students and chose to stay. There is a risk, however, that students in critical areas like AI may choose to return home if the United States does not carry out the reform needed to continue to attract students, potentially depriving American industry of invaluable human capital. The Trump administration’s barely concealed racist rhetoric toward immigrants was a setback – graduate engineering enrollment from India plummeted in the recent past, a result of Covid, of course, but even before that because of the fear of Trump. The beneficiaries of Trump’s belligerent posture were Canada, Australia, the U.K. and Singapore.
The Biden administration’s proposed immigration bill already takes an important step forward in student retention efforts by removing limits on green cards for doctoral STEM graduates.
If it is unable to implement policies that allow it to draw on this talent pool, the United States will cede technological leadership to China.
And it’s not only China — countries from all over the globe are lusting after top international talent. Canada has for years been putting up billboards in Silicon Valley advertising itself as the safer destination to build a career, playing on immigrant anxieties fanned by the Trump administration. The United Kingdom has overhauled the country’s high-skill visa system to create a new pathway, called the Global Talent visa, for foreign-born scientists and technical practitioners to come and work in the United Kingdom.
The history of immigration in America is such that every wave of immigration that lands on the shore sees the next wave as the threat. Nativist hostility toward immigrants is not a new thing. Each successive immigrant wave has found its own way to deal with it. But we have to accept that reactions to immigration have taken a darker turn of late. The scapegoating of immigrants is at a fever pitch; physical attacks are more frequent. Taunts of “go back to where you came from,” deeply rooted in American history, are on the rise, sanctioned sometimes at the highest levels of American government. Trump may be out of office, but his tweets live on as inspiration to his followers. To prospective immigrants, something seems different this time in American society.
All of this portends a reckoning of sorts. If prospective immigrants decide to take their talents to other shores, it would be devastating for America. But it would be our own fault.
There is no dearth of evidence to support the fact that it is immigration that has sustained American hegemony. Remembering that fact is the key to competing with China.
Girish Mhatreis the former editor-in-chief and publisher of EE Times.
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