Commentary

How Immigrants Have Made America a Leader in Technology Innovation

January 31, 2017

The vital role of immigrants in American technology innovation is so well documented that it shouldn’t need repeating. But in light of last week’s executive order that blocks access to the United States by citizens of seven countries with a collective population of well over 200 million, a few reminders might be timely.

America’s well-deserved reputation as a global leader in technology innovation is inseparable from its tradition of welcoming people from other countries. The list of American companies co-founded by immigrants includes Google, Yahoo, eBay, Qualcomm, VMware, Facebook, and many more. A 2016 study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that over half of the 87 tech start-ups valued at over $1 billion at the time of the study were co-founded by immigrants and that each of these companies had created an average of 760 jobs.

When children of immigrants are included, the impact on job creation and economic prosperity is even larger: A 2012 report from a group of business leaders and mayors from across the political spectrum noted that "more than 40 percent of America’s Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or a child of an immigrant."

American universities, particularly at the graduate level, play a vital role in this innovation pipeline. Each year thousands of foreign students enter master’s or Ph.D. programs in the United States. Many of these students come from extraordinarily selective overseas undergraduate programs, including in the countries covered by the executive order.

Consider Sharif University of Technology, in Iran, which like many of the most competitive universities around the world admits only a small fraction of those who apply. The top students at Sharif are, without any exaggeration, among the world’s brightest young people. Traditionally, many of Sharif’s highest-achieving graduates have come to American universities to pursue graduate degrees and then gone on to highly successful careers in the United States, often in academe or the technology sector.

Sharif’s top students and their academic peers elsewhere around the world have the talent and drive to succeed at the highest levels wherever they end up. If the doors of America are shut to them, they will go elsewhere — such as Canada, Europe, or Australia — and those places, not the United States, will be the primary beneficiaries of the innovations they generate, the companies they found, and the jobs they create.

Trump’s executive order is temporary and limited to a small number of countries. But its impact on the technology sector will be much broader in both time span and in geographical scope. Imagine the perspective of a talented undergraduate and aspiring technology entrepreneur in Pakistan weighing offers of admission to engineering graduate schools in both the United States and Canada. He or she might reasonably conclude that the risk of being caught up in a future U.S. government executive order excluding Pakistanis is too high and elect to pursue graduate studies in Canada. Thousands of people will be making these sorts of choices in the coming years, and the aggregate loss to American innovation could be immense.

American universities, particularly at the graduate level, play a vital role in this innovation pipeline.
Even putting aside the legal questions and the human cost, using national origin as a basis to exclude people from America and therefore from American colleges is an economically shortsighted proposition. Twenty-five years of university teaching have taught me that talent is global and that it is distributed without regard to race, religion, gender, or national origin. There are brilliant, innovative thinkers all over the world, and given the right environment, they will thrive.

American leadership in technology innovation is due not only to our democratic traditions and entrepreneurial culture but also to a continual inflow of talented, ambitious young people from abroad, many of whom arrive on our shores through our university system. This positive feedback loop — through which an innovation-friendly American culture attracts entrepreneurially minded students from across the globe who then enhance that culture through their own contributions — is a foundational component of American competitiveness and economic prosperity. When we move to disrupt that feedback loop by shutting the door to entire countries or classes of people such as refugees, we risk negative consequences that could last for decades.

Like many Americans, I have a deep appreciation and respect for the importance of the U.S. government’s mission to keep Americans safe from terrorist attacks. But that mission can be pursued with tools that are far less blunt than the recent executive order, which among its many other consequences will lead to less technology talent in American universities and companies, less technology innovation, and fewer job opportunities for all Americans, whether native born or naturalized.

John Villasenor is a professor of engineering, public policy, and management at the University of California at Los Angeles. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.