The U.S. economy runs on immigration. Immigrants support crucial industries, pay huge amounts in taxes, take care of children and the elderly, sustain American innovation and — perhaps most importantly — make the country a more attractive destination for multinational investment.
Over the past few years, President Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic and the end of the big Mexican migration wave have combined to reduce immigration substantially. With the economy still depressed, the pandemic still lingering and the U.S. image tarnished in the eyes of much of the world, President-elect Joe Biden will face an uphill battle to restore population inflows to a healthy level. But there are still a few important actions he can take.
The high-profile humanitarian issues of asylum-seekers, refugees and ICE detention centers will no doubt suck up much of the oxygen in the immigration debate — as the focus on Biden's selection of immigration specialist Alejandro Mayorkas to head the Department of Homeland Security demonstrates. But while those are important issues, Biden can't afford to forget about other kinds of immigration — especially the influx of foreign researchers and students.
In June, Trump issued an executive order halting new visas for scholars from overseas. This action, widely decried by scientists, was extremely foolish at a time when the U.S. was racing to develop new vaccines and treatments for a novel pandemic disease. But it's also a very bad economic strategy for the long term.
If China is the workshop of the world, the U.S. is its research park. The concentration of high-value industries in America depends crucially on the presence of top research universities, which in turn depend crucially on attracting the best and brightest scholars from all over the globe.
Just as Silicon Valley needs engineers to move in from other cities and just as Houston can't train all its energy industry workers locally, the U.S. — with less than 5% of the world's population — needs to pull in researchers from abroad in order to maintain its pole position as the center of science.
As a pointed illustration of this fact, note that the co-founder and chairman of Moderna, the American company whose vaccine promises to save millions of Americans from COVID-19, was born in Lebanon.
So Biden should immediately rescind the order banning foreign researchers from coming in. His administration should also act vigorously to clear away all of the regulatory and administrative barriers that the Trump administration has erected over the years that make it more difficult for foreign researchers to live and work in the U.S. Those barriers include making it harder to get green cards, and preventing spouses of visa holders from working.
Many foreign researchers are actually not employees, but students. In today's hybrid public-private research ecosystem, graduate students serve as the backbone of many labs, and often go on to become permanent immigrants after graduation. In many STEM fields, foreign grad students have become absolutely indispensable:
Trump has made vigorous and concerted efforts to deter foreign students from studying in the U.S. Much of this has taken the form of rhetoric, subtle administrative changes, or planned restrictions that haven't yet been implemented but cause a chilling effect. These small actions and threats have added up over time, causing a drop in international enrollment.
Biden can and should reverse all of those changes. In addition to making it easier for foreign students to get and keep visas, and to work longer after graduation, Biden can use vigorous and vocal rhetoric to make it clear that the U.S. welcomes foreign students. This will not only help preserve the U.S.' dominance in science and technology, but will also help the economies of college towns, which depend on the overseas money that international undergrad students pump into local businesses.
Beyond researchers and students, Biden can do the U.S. a lot of good by making green card processing easier and quicker for all immigrants. While science is of paramount importance, immigrants in general make large contributions to tax revenue.
The reason immigrants are such a fiscal boon is that most of them are skilled individuals — even those who don't come with a college education. Moving to another country to work is itself an indicator of grit, risk-taking and entrepreneurialism. Recent papers by economists Ed Lazear and others have shown that even though it's officially based around family reunification, the U.S. immigration system tends to select for the economically successful and upwardly mobile.
Making it easier to get green cards and visas might earn Biden some backlash from those who believe that immigrants primarily compete with native-born Americans for jobs. The truth — that immigration done through legal channels tends to create more jobs than it takes away — will have a hard time penetrating through the misconceptions built up through decades of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
But even if it's politically difficult. Biden needs to make foreign researchers and students a priority. The U.S. needs those workers, and neither the pandemic nor the Trump era has changed that fact.