Trump’s Anti-Immigration Crusade Is About to Strike at the Heart of the U.S. Economy

Foreign talent has been the secret sauce of America’s innovation economy. The door is about to shut.

By Edward Alden, a visiting professor at Western Washington University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
People walk on Google's main campus in Mountain View, California, on May 1, 2019.
People walk on Google's main campus in Mountain View, California, on May 1, 2019. AMY OSBORNE/AFP via Getty Images

The United States and China are in a growing competition for technological leadership. China is seeking to match or surpass its main rival in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, quantum computing, and other sectors vital to future economic and military prowess. But if U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has its way, it could dismantle the United States’ most potent weapon—its ability to attract and retain the best science and engineering talent from across the planet.If Trump has his way, he could dismantle the United States’ most potent weapon—its ability to attract the best science and engineering talent from across the planet.

According to the Wall Street Journal and other reports, the administration is preparing to suspend all employment-based visas for foreign workers, including the H-1B visa used by many foreign engineers and scientists working in the United States. The administration is also considering curbing a program that allows foreign students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to work in the United States for up to three years after they finish their studies at a U.S university; more than 200,000 foreign graduates each year work under the program. Trump administration officials argue that the spike in unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic justifies tough restrictions on foreign workers so that any new jobs coming out of the downturn only go to Americans.

For different reasons, the administration is also considering canceling thousands of visas held by Chinese graduate students and researchers living in the United States if they graduated from a Chinese university that has links to the country’s military. The worry is that these students could carry home knowledge that boosts China’s military capabilities.

Rather than strengthening the U.S. economy and enhancing security, these restrictions would be a serious blow to the United States’ lead in cutting-edge technologies. The only way for the United States to stay ahead of China is to run faster in the technology race, and the ability to recruit and retain many of the top scientific minds from China and many other countries provides an enormous head start.

Consider the quest for leadership in artificial intelligence (AI), which will be critical to almost every future industrial and military application. China’s goal is to become the world’s dominant AI power in both innovation and deployment. China has many advantages, including massive government support, a huge pool of data from its population of 1.4 billion, new infrastructure, and an ecosystem of competitive companies.

But the key ingredient for leadership in AI, as in most other new technologies, is attracting and retaining the most talented scientists and engineers. Here the United States has no rival. A report released last week by MacroPolo, the in-house think tank of the Paulson Institute, found that nearly 60 percent of the top-tier AI researchers are working for U.S. companies and universities—the top three employers were Google, Stanford University, and Carnegie Mellon University. That lead is “built on attracting international talent,” according to the MacroPolo report; more than two-thirds of the world’s best AI researchers completed their undergraduate studies abroad, but then came to the United States. Notably, China currently graduates more top AI researchers than any other country in the world, but more than half of those go on to study, work, and live in the United States.

The big magnet for the world’s talent is U.S. universities. Top prospects from around the globe come here to do graduate research, and are then enticed to stay by the abundant work opportunities. Navigating U.S. immigration rules to stay and work has never been easy; the H-1B program, which allows U.S. companies to hire educated foreign workers, is capped at 85,000 visas per year. The path from there to permanent residency is arduous, often taking a decade or more.

But the lure of the United States has been so great that the best and brightest usually find a way to stay. According to the most recent estimates, more than 75 percent of foreign-born doctoral students in engineering and science at U.S. universities plan to remain in the country after they graduate, a share that has risen steadily since the 1990s. China and India are the two leading countries of origin for these advanced students; South Korea is third by a considerable margin. Among Chinese students working on AI who graduate with a doctorate degree, an astonishing 91 percent are still in the United States five years after graduation, according to a detailed study by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. In other words, China is sending the United States its brightest AI scientists—and most of them are not going home.

But the Trump administration is doing its best to give away that advantage. Over the past several years, immigration hurdles have grown from tall to nearly impassable. For example, denial rates on H-1B visas have risen from just 6 percent in the 2015 fiscal year to 30 percent so far in the 2020 fiscal year. For foreign students, long visaprocessing delays have made it harder for many to come to the United States to study. After decades of virtually uninterrupted growth, the number of new international students has been slowly declining since 2015.

The pandemic is also making life far more difficult for foreign students already in the United States. Their visa status prevents them from working, except on college campuses that are now closed. They have also been barred from receiving any of the U.S. government funds for assisting students during the crisis. U.S. colleges are anticipating a 25 percent drop in international student enrollment this fall. The United States also has no visa for foreign students who want to start their own companies, discouraging the most entrepreneurial among them from staying in the country.

Adjusting U.S. visa policies is not without merit. There are real concerns about foreign researchers and workers. The H-1B program has been used for both high-end scientific talent and more routine work that has, at times, displaced Americans; reform of the program by U.S. Congress is more than a decade overdue. Chinese researchers and students working in sensitive technology fields should be properly screened and vetted by the U.S. government; a recent probe at the National Institutes of Health resulted in 54 scientists being removed for failing to disclose financial ties to foreign governments. All but a small handful were from China.

China has become more aggressive in trying to recruit its top scientists to return home with initiatives such as the Thousand Talents Program, under which Chinese entities hire international researchers, sometimes in secret. The scheme requires close U.S. monitoring and a targeted response, but a recent investigation by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that the administration was “overstating the threat” at the risk of “alienating large numbers of ethnic Chinese scientists who were trained at the best schools in the United States and who prefer to remain in the United States.”The United States is not going to win the technology race with China by trying to bar the door.

The U.S government has managed these dilemmas before. The 9/11 terrorist attacks resulted in curbs on foreign students and some immigrants, but after several years the administration of  President George W. Bush found its way back to a sensible balance between what it called “secure borders and open doors.” The pipeline of foreign talent remained largely uninterrupted. But as the Center for Security and Emerging Technology report warns, the Trump administration is clamping down so hard that many top researchers may be driven away. “Without serious immigration policy changes, the United States stands to lose a vital asset in the international competition for AI leadership,” it warns.

The United States is not going to win the technology race with China by trying to bar the door. Unparalleled U.S. success in many areas of science and technology was built on attracting the world’s best talent, and then giving that talent the opportunity to build rewarding and often lucrative careers in the United States. The United States tampers with that winning formula at its own peril.

Edward Alden is the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy. Twitter: @edwardalden