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Can the Biden Administration’s Immigration Policy Reignite America’s Innovation Engine?

Can the Biden Administration’s Immigration Policy Reignite America’s Innovation Engine?

The pandemic-driven shelter-in-place orders American must live with today and for the foreseeable future have released a foggy reality, one in which Americans for the first time enmasse must forego attending births, funerals, weddings and other family milestones or face the possible consequences of contracting Covid-19 or passing it on.

Imagine that, all of life’s major milestones must pass without you or you may attend at your own potential peril. What does that remind you of?

As a professor of International Business at San Jose State University – among the most racially and economically diverse colleges in the country in terms of the makeup of student body and faculty – I can tell you what that terrible fear and self sacrifice remind me of: The many immigrants across the U.S. who live with the same type of perpetual ill-feeling on a daily basis and whose plight has become even more pitiful in the last couple of years due to the immigrant-blaming and bashing policies of the Trump Administration.

The uncertainty or confusion about how the United States’ immigration policies could be interpreted by a federal official at the border or an airport is a very unnerving feeling. This constantly hinders travel to family in the country of origin or elsewhere as it can have significant consequences. It is miserable that the highly skilled talent from abroad that contributes significantly to the U.S. economic growth feels captivated with its boundaries.

Despite an imperfect immigration policy, the U.S. has successfully attracted the brightest minds from across the globe that have contributed to America’s innovation and entrepreneurship over this past century.  However, at no time in American history has immigration been as legally restricted as it is currently. The Trump administration’s botched response to the Coronavirus pandemic and the network of policies implemented to deter potential immigrants, has stemmed the flow of talented migrants into the U.S. and is damaging the engine of American innovation in three major ways:  First, the flow of international students from overseas is slowing and weakening universities and their research; Second, a moratorium on a number of work-visa categories is hindering the circulation of people and ideas in high-productivity industrial clusters, such as Silicon Valley , New York etc.;  Third, the American immigration system is dissuading potential investors from fueling the countries’ economic growth. Thus, America’s innovation engine – like new technologies, drugs, therapies, and business models are growing at a snail’s pace – not only due to the pandemic but also due to visa debacles and travel bans.

President Biden decried some of the Trump measures as “inhumane” and vowed to end them during the campaign. Now it is imperative that the Bidden-Harris regimes focus on a holistic immigration policy with an emphasis on the three major categories of migrant – students, skilled laborers and entrepreneurs or investors.  Such an amendment will not only help reignite the country’s innovation engine but also augment economic growth, a necessity for the U.S. to emerge stronger on the other side of the pandemic.

The long-term view of the American immigration policy should first concentrate on the immigrants we educate. Institutions of higher education attract bright students by providing them funding and scholarships to be trained at the world’s leading universities. However, after graduation, despite the skills, talent and often a job offer, as a faculty I have seen many brilliant students are forced to pack their bags and leave due to limited work visa (H1B) permits. Obviously, America’s failure to retain this talent then contributes to the competitive advantage of either their home countries or other economies like Canada and Australia that have welcomed skilled workers with guaranteed paths to citizenship.

At the start of the pandemic, the Trump administration signed an executive order that unnecessarily tightened rules for the H1B visa program that brings highly skilled workers into the United States, assuming the restrictions would help prevent “fraud and abuse within the immigration system.” There needs to be a check on who received the visas, however, such abrupt policy changes not only drastically alter the lives of talented dedicated individuals who have followed the rules all along but also, substantially disrupt the very American businesses these individuals serve.

The debate on the role of migrant entrepreneurs and investors is a remarkable one. For instance, the EB-5 Visa Program which gives green cards to alien investors who put at least $900,000 (recently increased from $500,000) into Homeland Security-approved investments has been sinking steadily. The implementation of this program is complicated due to the multi-agency rules. The recent changes to the program created additional barriers for not only potential investment dollars coming into the country but also to potential jobs they create for the American economy. Why are we shooting ourselves in the foot by eliminating investments and jobs for Americans?

Such inadequacies are astounding given how influential immigrants’ innovation has been in Americans’ everyday lives. As The Entrepreneur reports “more than 40 percent of businesses on the U.S. Fortune 500 List are launched by immigrants or children of immigrants.  This is especially remarkable given that the overall percentage of immigrants in the US is only about 13 percent” much lower than any other developed nation.  Immigrants help build a culture of risk taking and creative destruction that, combined with the benedictions of American democracy, are must for innovation and entrepreneurial growth in a nation. The Trump administration’s shoddy rules send the wrong message to global investors – despite the opportunities in the U.S. the immigration policies are uncertain and unfriendly.

Now is the time to focus on how to preserve and grow what makes the U.S. research and innovation strong, and to address the shortfalls in the system.  President Biden will have to exert considerable effort to get the U.S. immigration system back to where it was. The first step could be to immediately repeal the immigration bans that President Trump enacted in response to COVID-19, which he rightly criticized because “immigrants help grow our economy and create jobs”.

At the most fundamental level, many corporate executives appear grateful to move on from the Trump administration, and are ready to work with the new administration to help the US recover from the pandemic and grow our economy. So, rather than simply reacting to the interruptions imposed by the pandemic, President Joe Biden’s team can opt to develop holistic immigration policies to develop innovation capabilities that will help fuel future American economic growth.   The new administration should turbocharge its effort on immigration and prioritize American Citizenship based on “skills” rather than “country of birth” to attract and retain valuable talent. By welcoming potential migrants – be it students seeking education at American Universities, employees contributing skills to American corporations, or investors willing to invest their dollars into the American economy, the Biden administration can fuel the fire of long-term economic growth and reignite America’s innovation engine.

After all, people across the world want to live the American Dream, and Americans want to welcome them as family, workers, consumers, and employers, but only an administration who values the immigrants’ contributions can work with congress to provide legal opportunities to welcome them.

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