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Opinion On STEM, give Biden credit for his efforts to repair the national reputation that Trump trashed

President Biden signing an executive order in the Oval Office in February 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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As president, Donald Trump trashed this country’s reputation as a desirable destination for the world’s science, tech and entrepreneurial talent. President Biden deserves credit for his recent attempts to repair it.

In the absence of more sweeping immigration reform, which Congress has been unable to enact for decades, Biden’s actions are critical. At least if we hope to again make our country a welcoming place for high-value talent.

Trump adopted many awful immigration policies that undermined U.S. moral standing and geopolitical interests. Family separations, Muslim bans and sundry human rights abuses got a lot of attention. But the Trump-era immigration choices that likely did the most to undermine our long-term economic interests were probably more obscure.

These generally involved making life hell — or at least purgatory — for the foreign-born scientists, scholars, engineers and entrepreneurs trying to contribute to the U.S. economy.

For example: There was the Nobel laureate denied a “genius” green card on the grounds that the applicant hadn’t sufficiently proven any exceptional ability; and the harassment of skilled immigrants through demands for expensive and duplicative paperwork, and then capricious executive orders that trapped their spouses and children abroad. There was the slowing of visa and work-permit processing, which injected greater uncertainty and cost into the hiring process for both immigrant workers and their would-be employers.

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And there were multiple attempts to slam the door on international students.

The number of international students enrolled at U.S. colleges had been rising steadily for more than a decade before Trump took office. But between the academic years 2015-2016 and 2019-2020 — i.e., more or less right before the coronavirus pandemic severely ratcheted down college enrollments — enrollment of international students in the United States fell about 5 percent.

Other countries saw the opportunity we were leaving on the table — and seized it: In Australia, over roughly the same period, international student enrollment rose by 50 percent. In Canada, by 70 percent.

Canada has also worked hard to make its visa process for skilled immigrants exceptionally smooth and fast, with many temporary visa applications for high-skilled foreign professionals approved within two weeks. A comparable applicant to the United States can wait months to be approved — if they’re lucky enough to win the lottery that allows their application to even be considered.

Our main high-skilled worker visa program is capped (and oversubscribed); Canada’s isn’t.

Other countries have tried hard to lure these immigrants to their shores because international talent has been key to America’s enduring leadership in science, tech and business.

Immigrant researchers and entrepreneurs have historically made outsize contributions to the U.S. economy and innovation. (Our national defense, too, if you consider, say, the Manhattan Project.) Since 2000, immigrants have been awarded 40 of the 104 Nobel Prizes won by Americans in chemistry, medicine and physics, according to the National Foundation for American Policy. A fifth of current Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants. Highly skilled foreign-born workers create more job opportunities for Americans.

And international students disproportionately study the STEM fields that U.S. employers demand — and that U.S.-born students are less willing to take up.

The Biden administration knows all this. And it knows that our convoluted immigration system — dysfunctional even before the Trumpers got ahold of it — must improve if we’re to win back this talent. Especially if we hope to compete with China, which has been churning out STEM graduates.

So, last week, the White House announced some initial steps to make it easier for STEM-trained immigrants to come to or stay in the United States.

Some were basic “housekeeping”-type changes, such as updating the list of academic disciplines that count as STEM; students who come to the United States for bachelor’s or graduate degrees in these fields are eligible to work here longer after graduation. Graduates in 22 fields that should have been on the STEM list long ago — such as data science or environmental geosciences — will be eligible for this extra work and training period.

Another new policy aims to encourage more private-sector businesses to hire STEM researchers as exchange visitors, through a program that historically has been used mostly by universities and nonprofits.

The administration also clarified criteria for “extraordinary ability” visas in science and other fields. Previously, eligibility for these so-called genius visas had been somewhat murky — for applicants and government adjudicators alike — and so relatively few people bothered submitting applications.

Establishing more transparent, objective and predictable criteria should encourage more qualified immigrants to seek these legal pathways to entry. “We think there’s a lot more eligible people out there than are applying,” an administration official said.

Biden is extending his hand to the students and workers that other economies have been furiously recruiting. The question is whether those coveted emigres — insulted, abused and jerked around by the U.S. government in recent years — are willing to accept it.