The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why open borders are crucial for innovation

Scene at George Mason University’s campus in Virginia. (Creative Services/GMU)

Ángel Cabrera is president of George Mason University in Northern Virginia. Mason, with about 34,000 students, is the state’s largest public university.

By Ángel Cabrera

American innovation has been the envy of the world for the last century. Our ability to discover scientific breakthroughs, invent disruptive technologies and build successful companies that make those advances broadly available has been unparalleled. This creativity is the product of a culture that is uniquely open to new ideas, that encourages and rewards risk taking, that values people for what they achieve, not where they come from. It is also the result of a constant supply of talented people from outside the United States, many of whom came to this country seeking world-class education and an open society where they could thrive.

That is why our public universities have overwhelmingly spoken up against the recent travel bans President Trump issued through executive order. While changes in immigration policy may very well be necessary, any moves that create additional barriers to the free flow of business and educational exchange threaten to erode our economic advantage and negatively impact our future.

Consider this: all six Nobel Prize winners in the United States last year were immigrants, as were 40 percent of all American Nobel recipients in physics, chemistry, medicine and physiology since 2000. Microsoft is led by an Indian, as is Google, which was co-founded by a Russian. Tesla is the creation of a South African who’s now also revolutionizing space aircraft. The online shopping company eBay was started by a French national of Iranian descent, and the iPhone was designed by a Brit. Immigrants or their children started more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies, according to the Kauffman Foundation, and more than 50 percent of billion-plus startups had at least one foreign-born founder.

A 2007 study by researchers from Duke University, the University of California at Berkeley and the Kauffman Foundation found that more than half of the foreign-born founders of American tech companies initially came to the United States to study. In some critical fields, such as engineering and computer science, foreign nationals already account for more than half of all doctoral degrees granted in America.

The influx of international students into our universities does not take away resources from American students. On the contrary, foreign students contribute much-needed tuition dollars and have a positive impact on our local economies. The roughly 1 million foreign students attending U.S. colleges and universities last year contributed more than $32 billion to the U.S. economy – double the amount of 10 years prior – and supported more than 400,000 U.S. jobs. International students strengthen our campuses by creating additional opportunities for American students to develop a more global mindset and build relationships that will prepare them to be more effective in an increasingly global marketplace.

Despite these benefits, the advantage that American universities enjoy in attracting foreign talent should not be taken for granted. The perception of openness is just as important as the legal reality of openness. Whenever the United States is seen as less open and welcoming to people and ideas, this dynamic source of innovative talent suffers, as we saw in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2000, the United States attracted approximately 23 percent of all international students seeking to study outside their home country. After the attacks, changes in immigration policy and a belief that the United States was a less welcoming dropped that share to 17 percent. Only in recent years has our percentage of international students returned to 2000 levels.

This loss was others’ gain. In the decade or so after 9/11, when the proportion of international students who came to the United States was shrinking, other English-speaking countries experienced rapid growth international students. The United Kingdom expanded its pool from 11 percent in 2000 to 18 percent in 2014; Australia expanded from 12.5 percent to 18.2 percent in that time, and Canada expanded its pool from less than 5 percent to nearly 10 percent.

Drastic changes in U.S. immigration policy could once again encourage international students to look elsewhere. Current students from the six countries directly affected by the latest version of the travel ban may find other places to continue their education. This is especially true for those with single-entry visas who are effectively pre-empted from leaving the United States because they will not be allowed to re-enter. Similarly, other potential international students may decide to pursue their education outside the United States, as we appear to shut our doors to individuals of certain backgrounds.

Few would argue against carefully vetting all who wish to enter the United States, and preventing anyone who represents a clear threat from reaching our shores. But that shouldn’t mean shutting our borders to one of our main sources of innovation and growth. Openness has been this country’s strength since its founding. Let us not lose sight of how we got here.

Ángel Cabrera, president of George Mason University,
is the first native of Spain to lead a U.S. university. He is chairman of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Commission on International Initiatives.