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MIT Technology Review
Opinion

The US is turning away the world’s best minds—and this time, they may not come back

New restrictions will prompt would-be immigrants to look elsewhere. Many may find America is no longer their best option.

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Bambi Corro via Unsplash
Editor’s note: On July 14, 2020, the Trump administration said it would reverse an Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule that would have required foreign students to leave the US if they were taking all of their classes online.

For decades, US policymakers have bet that the world’s best and brightest will endure a dysfunctional immigration process for a chance at the opportunities the country offers. And for decades, they have been right. Talented people born outside of the US have continued flocking to America’s schools, companies, and way of life, and staying for good when they can.

The Trump administration is now doubling down on this bet. As it creates a slew of new barriers to skilled immigrants in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, it assumes that America will continue to be uniquely attractive to foreign talent—attractive enough, at any rate, to satisfy the country’s needs for highly skilled labor. But the odds on this bet are changing.

The latest move in the crackdown came last week, when US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decreed that foreign students must leave the country if their schools operate entirely online next semester. ICE’s announcement is part of a trend that began long before the pandemic but has sped up dramatically in the past few months. With new regulations, executive orders, and administrative guidance, federal authorities have made it slower, costlier, and much less certain for immigrants to come to the US.

America’s universities, research labs, and tech companies have watched these developments in disbelief. Research has shown that immigrants are critical to science and technology in the US, fueling (pdf) technological innovation, job creation, and growth that benefit US citizens and noncitizens alike. That’s why tech and business leaders reacted with outrage last month when the White House suspended key visas for skilled workers. Many who spoke out, such as SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, AI pioneers Andrew Ng and Yann LeCun, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, are themselves immigrants who first came to the US on temporary visas.

Even president Trump, who claims, contrary to most evidence, that today’s immigration programs displace US-born workers, also acknowledges that immigrants are crucial to American science and technology. And at least some US policymakers understand there are no quick substitutes for the current US immigration system. Building up a skilled domestic workforce is crucial, but that won’t provide the talent the US needs in the short and medium term in fields like AI. Major immigration reform of any sort is a distant dream. If existing US immigration laws and institutions break down, whether by design, neglect, or political stalemate, there’s simply no good backup option.

Meanwhile, for many students and workers, the US just doesn’t have the irresistible pull it once did, and other countries are competing hard to attract them. America’s leading companies and universities are tough to match, but Canada, China, the United Kingdom, Australia, and others now boast flourishing tech hubs, world-class research institutions, and bold public policies to support R&D. For those who want to work on the cutting edge in fields such as AI, quantum computing, and biotech, the US is no longer the only option.

America’s economic competitors are also updating their own immigration systems. They recognize, as one of China’s leading venture capitalists recently put it in an interview with the South China Morning Post, that “while the US is driving talent away, it is the perfect time for us to race to bring them back.” For example, Canada’s Express Entry system can connect highly skilled workers to permanent residency within six to nine months. A job offer helps but isn’t required. From 2017 to 2019, the number of US residents who sought and received “invitations to apply” for Canadian permanent residence through Express Entry almost doubled; most were noncitizens living in the United States on green cards or temporary visas. The program issued thousands of new invitations just last week.

Canada isn’t the only one competing for a global tech workforce. Australia recently launched a Global Talent program that actively recruits STEM talent worldwide. The UK offers fast-track visas for scientists and soon plans to overhaul its immigration system to lower barriers for skilled workers. France has introduced the French Tech Visa—an uncapped, renewable visa for tech workers and entrepreneurs. In sharp contrast to the situation in US, covid-19 hasn’t caused these countries to backtrack; they remain committed to attracting skilled immigrants and are positioning themselves to welcome talent as travel restrictions ease.

It’s too soon to say how much these immigration initiatives may erode America’s historic advantage in technology and other fields. Some countries are better positioned to attract talent than others, and some reforms have had shaky early results. But America’s historic near-monopoly on the global market for foreign talent is fading, and the stakes are getting higher. The US’s long-standing bet on a failing immigration system looks increasingly risky.

Tina Huang and Zachary Arnold are researchers with Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Their recent report comparing US immigration policies with those of economic competitors is available here.