As the nation grapples with a new recession, deals with a resurgence of covid-19 and reckons with systemic racism, the war on immigration continues. The Trump administration is now ending visa programs — including ones for skilled immigrants — under the pretext of staving off the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and saving jobs for the American worker. This move will be catastrophic to the U.S. scientific enterprise at a time when we should be strengthening it with investments of funding and talent, all while likely having no substantial effect on U.S. unemployment.
In April, while the government scrambled to address PPE and testing shortages, President Trump issued a presidential proclamation suspending entry of new immigrants, with the stated intention of mitigating the impact on job availability and economic recovery. Since then, several groups of lawmakers have pushed for further restrictions on immigration such as suspending all skilled-worker visas for at least a year and halting all Chinese nationals receiving visas to do scientific research at the graduate or postgraduate level.
This week, Trump signed an executive order extending previous immigration restrictions and barring issuance of several work visas, including the H-1B, H-2B and J-1 programs. But immigrant scholars on some of these visas are crucial drivers of scientific research. An end to these programs, or even a long pause, won’t help job-seeking Americans for two main reasons: STEM jobs have long experienced labor shortages even at times of major unemployment, and welcoming immigrant scientists and engineers creates thousands of new jobs for U.S. workers.
Most foreign-born scientists are on H-1B or J-1 visas. While researchers on J-1s appear to be exempt at this time, researchers on H-1Bs are not. There is little to no evidence that ending such programs would create jobs for native-born workers, especially in the short run. Yet there is plenty of data showing that it would slow economic growth and job creation in the long run. A decision to curb highly skilled immigration programs would be shortsighted and likely harmful to the economic, intellectual, moral and public health of this country.
A nationwide study by the American Enterprise Institute and New American Economy shows that for every 100 immigrants who come to the United States to earn their advanced STEM degree and stay to work here, 262 new jobs are created and filled by native-born workers. The benefits to U.S. workers don’t come just from immigrants who are educated at U.S. institutions: The report also shows that adding 100 immigrants with advanced STEM degrees from foreign universities create an additional 86 jobs for native-born workers. When you look at data strictly from H-1B visa recipients, adding 100 H-1B skilled temporary foreign workers adds an additional 183 jobs for the native-born. Adding 100 H-2B less-skilled nonagricultural workers produces 464 jobs for native-born workers. Another study from the National Foundation for American Policy reports that increasing H-1B visa holders by just 1 percent in an occupation reduces that field’s unemployment rate by about 0.2 percent and increases wages in the profession.
Whichever way you slice it, immigrant scholars (including those on H-1B visas) create and do not “steal" U.S. jobs. And senior administration officials know this. Ending these visa programs will stunt the United States’ long-term economic growth and set us on the path of abandoning our place as a leader in education, science and innovation on the world stage. There is little reason for implementing an immigration policy with such long-term impacts based on short-term economic problems related to a pandemic.
But that’s just the economic argument. Immigrants are valuable as people, regardless of their impact on U.S. science, and we should welcome the opportunity to enrich our communities with them. Perhaps one of the most troubling things about these policies is that they use the coronavirus pandemic as pretext for implementing anti-immigrant policies that the Trump administration has been seeking since Day One.
The way to emerge from a major economic and public health crisis shouldn’t include rejecting scholars who are ready and willing to help. Science is better when we open our doors to curious minds from all over the world and harness their creativity, potential and ambition. The success of our scientific endeavor rests, in no small measure, on the dedication of exceptional immigrant researchers. This includes, by the way, discovering treatments for covid-19.
We scholars tackle tough and complicated questions in our labs. Rather than adding more clouds of fear and uncertainty to the lives of immigrant scientists working hard to answer those questions, the United States should be supporting their work and embracing them with open arms.