Last week the Trump Administration announced the suspension of visas for seven different categories of specialized workers and their family members. Many might be tempted to shrug this off, thinking that such a restriction will help American workers find better jobs. That conclusion is mistaken.
This action will shrink the US economy by almost $100 billion this year alone. It risks permanent damage to our research universities, which are the lifeblood of technical research and development. And it will push American firms overseas in search of talent, reducing the long-term demand for high-skilled workers. The communities that will suffer most are small college towns and rural places already facing ongoing population decline.
Last year these visa programs admitted almost 600,000 workers and roughly 250,000 family members to the U.S. About half of these are for foreigners working as camp counsellors, tutors or nannies. The majority of them also attend college in the U.S. The other half of jobs go to very high-skilled workers, typically with masters or doctorate degrees in science, technology or mathematics. Most of these workers just finished college degrees in the United States.
The visa restrictions will redirect hundreds of thousands of foreign students to universities in Canada, Great Britain and Europe. This action will cause deep financial damage to hundreds of American universities. For example, almost a quarter of students who attend Purdue are foreigners, most of whom study here with the intent of obtaining one of these visas.
The damage to America’s universities cannot be overstated. In the 120 years since the Nobel prize was first awarded, roughly 40 percent have gone to Americans. Of those awards to Americans, more than one in three went to immigrants. Closing this door would be more damaging to American science and innovation than any single event in our history. This visa plan should be called “Make Foreign Universities Great Again.”
The inability to attract the best minds around the world will cause U.S. companies to move operations overseas. Ironically, the likely shift of U.S. research and development operations this visa restriction would cause will be sufficient enough to reduce employment in the U.S. The place that will suffer most will be college towns and places trying to lure high-technology jobs to their regions. Immigrants comprise almost all the population growth outside of large metropolitan places.
The Trump Administration’s stated reason for this action is transparently fictitious. For almost four years they’ve claimed they oppose low-skilled and illegal immigration. This is high-skilled and legal immigration. Have they been lying to the American people for four years? The Administration claims it wants to boost U.S. jobs, but this action will reduce U.S. GDP and employment. The Administration even claimed this is designed to stop the Coronavirus pandemic. That claim is just as serious as suggesting we inject disinfectant or take Hydroxychloroquine.
This visa restriction is just a desperate campaign talking point aimed at the most gullible voters in the nation. But, is that good politics? I think not. Immigrants to the United States represent the very essence of what Republicans said they stood for when I came of age to vote in 1980. President Reagan chose his farewell address to reinforce that point saying, “It is bold men and women, yearning for freedom and opportunity, who leave their homelands and come to a new country to start their lives over. They believe in the American dream.” Today, a modestly competent political party, yearning for future electoral success, would make an explicit appeal to immigrants.
Still the political folly of a policy does not constitute an economic argument against it. For that I make the appeal to reason. The unemployment rate for STEM workers perennially hovers close to zero. We live in a world of nearly inexhaustible demand for technical innovation. Adding more high-skilled workers makes the U.S. economy better, with more, better-paying jobs. Foreign students and professors are indispensable to America’s innovation-based economy. Slowing the immigration of skilled and educated foreigners is not simply bad public policy, it is transcendentally stupid.
To put it simply, a political party that would restrict this type of immigration does not believe in America. They reject the words of Ronald Reagan, who told us “While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams. We create the future, and the world follows us into tomorrow.” Any political party aching to restrict the best and brightest from teeming to our shores has no interest in leading us into tomorrow. Voters must not let them try.
Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Hicks earned doctoral and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Virginia Military Institute. He has authored two books and more than 60 scholarly works focusing on state and local public policy, including tax and expenditure policy and the impact of Wal-Mart on local economies.