How the Visa Ban Will Hurt US Innovation


A key reason for the prosperity found in the United States is the ability of universities and companies to attract the best and brightest people from abroad. Shutting out skilled individuals from entire countries could have grave consequences for America’s intellectual institutions as well as knowledge-intensive businesses. The obstacles put in place following the 2001 terrorist attack did reduce the position of the US in the global competition for talent, yet the regulations were about increasing security and allowed those that had been screened to enter. The new visa ban sends a message to talent from majority-Muslim countries: you are not wanted here, even individuals posing no threat. It is hard to imagine that this will not hurt America’s goodwill significantly, particularly in the European tech-sector where people from countries such as Iran play an important role.

To illustrate the importance of talent attraction one only needs to look at Silicon Valley, the world’s greatest hub for new technologies and entrepreneurship. It is no coincidence that Silicon Valley has grown in close connection to Stanford University, one of the leading global institutions for learning and research in engineering and sciences. Without the brains attracted to Stanford and other similar universities, innovative American businesses such as Cisco, eBay and Netflix would not be able to dominate the global marketplace. Top entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and other tech-hubs are understandably concerned about the visa ban. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was among the first to address the ban publicly, writing on Facebook: “We need to keep this country safe, but we should do that by focusing on people who actually pose a threat”. Since then numerous other CEOs spanning from the Automotive sector to the Pharma industry have made their voices heard against the travel ban.

Much of the talent that fuels America’s universities and tech hubs comes from abroad. Between 1990 and 2014 for example, the college-educated immigrant population increased 339 per cent from 3.1 to 10.5 million. A group of particular importance is graduate students in fields such as science, engineering and health. It is these individuals whose knowledge and innovative ideas fuel the technologically advanced businesses on which US exports rely. Among the graduate students in these fields, one third are not US citizens or permanent residents, but rather foreign visitors. In some fields, international students make up the majority. An analysis of the latest data shows that 61 per cent of full-time graduate students in computer science are international. In the field of Electrical Engineering the share is even higher, 72 per cent.

Where do these students come from? China and Korea are countries often associated with global talent influx into the US. But, we should not forget that several Muslim-majority countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, are also of importance, along with Muslim groups from India and Bangladesh. An illustrative example is Maryam Mirzakhani, born in Iran in 1977. Showing an early gift for mathematics, she received a degree from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. After moving to the US, Maryam earned her PhD from Harvard before becoming a young professor at Stanford. In 2014 she was awarded the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics. Maryam was the first women to win the medal, unofficially referred to as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”. Since it was established in 1936, all previous winners have been male.

Her story is not unique. In 2003, administrators at Stanford University’s Electrical Engineering Department were reportedly startled when the notoriously difficult entrance exam for PhD studies had been aced by a group of foreign students. The majority originated from one place – the same Sharif University where Maryam had studied. Stanford is not an isolated example. Iranian top students are doing well in the International Science Olympiads and flourishing in foreign universities.

The Trump administration’s visa ban is affecting graduate students from Stanford. The Stanford Daily reported that Mostafa Afkhamizadeh, a Stanford PhD student born in Iran, was visiting his family when the presidential order was unexpectedly announced. The prospects for the fifth-year PhD student remain unclear. Will he be able to travel back to the US to finish his research studies in management science and engineering? Another example is that of Nisrin Omer, a Sudanese Harvard University graduate who is a graduate student in anthropology at Stanford. Although Omer is a legal U.S. resident and has lived in the country since 1993, she was briefly handcuffed and detained at JFK airport. There are more examples to be found amongst Stanford PhD students alone, such as Khashayar Khosravi and his fiancée whose wedding plans have been disrupted by the visa ban simply since they both happened to be born in Iran. We should keep in mind that the next wave of graduate students seeking to apply to foreign universities are taking note of the new risks associated with applying to the US. It helps putting oneself in someone else’s shoes: if you were a talented young Pakistani student, would you apply to a university in the US next year?

Not long ago, the US was the unchallenged destination of choice for global talents. Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration introduced background checks that made it time consuming for international students from certain countries to enter the US. Some of the brightest international students could not gain entry into Stanford and other top US institutions, which led them to universities in Canada, the UK, and Germany. Suddenly, academic institutions outside the US realized that they could better compete. Universities which have attracted some international talent are more likely to attract additional international talent – since top students from abroad follow in the footsteps of previous top students, and because universities that have learned to attract some talents will have an easier time attracting others.

The position of the US as the unchallenged destination of global talent has shifted since the policies of the Bush administration. Today, the best American universities are often but not always the top choice. While the US takes the influx of international brains as a given, governments in other countries are keenly aware that we live in a world where competitiveness is increasingly about knowledge. A study presented for Global Affairs Canada last year estimates that after accounting for Canadian scholarships and bursaries, the total annual expenditure of international students, their families, and friends contributed $9.3 billion in GDP to the Canadian economy. The long-term benefit of attracting this human capital from abroad will likely be many times higher. The Canadian government is actively signaling to global talent: we embrace you. This is, to say the least, not quite the positive message sent out by the US.

The visa ban’s repercussions matter for international exchange between technology firms. Talent from majority-Muslim countries plays a key role in the technology sector not only in the US, but also in a range of other countries. For example, a study found Stockholm, the capital city of Sweden, “is the second most prolific tech hub globally, with 6.3 billion-dollar companies per million people (compared to [Silicon] Valley with 6.9)”. The innovative companies in Stockholm grow in close connection with those in the US, not least in Silicon Valley. In the Stockholm tech sector, people born in Iran and other parts of the Middle East make up a significant share of the engineers, researchers and entrepreneurs. Creating barriers for these individuals to travel to the US - as the visa requirement introduced last year by congressional Republicans did and the Trump ban reinforced - makes it difficult for Silicon Valley to grow along with tech hubs worldwide. The unicorn factory of Stockholm is a single example, many more can be found across Europe. Highly educated people from countries such as Pakistan and Iran play an important role in the European tech sector. They, and their colleagues, are anything but happy with the visa ban.

While the direct effect of the visa ban is bad news for the US in an increasingly talent driven environment, the message it sends to the world is even worse: the Trump administration is willing to shut people out simply due to their place of birth. A comparison to the tighter rules introduced after the terrorist attack in 2001 is useful to illustrate this point. While certainly causing problems for many individuals, those affected then could sympathize with the effort to increase US security. The policy was about increasing security, not excluding those born in the “wrong countries”. The ban says to educated people from majority-Muslim countries, you are not wanted in the US. In a global knowledge economy, where the obstacle for growth is increasingly a lack of talent rather than a lack of financial capital, this form of policy is not wise. It will certainly hurt the promise of the Trump administration to boost US competitiveness. Republicans in favor of sound economic policies should advocate that the ban be replaced with more nuanced measures focused on security, not exclusion based on nationality.

Atta Tarki is the CEO of Ex-Consultants Agency, an executive search firm helping Fortune 500 companies solve their most pressing talent needs across the world.

Dr. Nima Sanandaji is the president of the European Centre for Policy Reform and Entrepreneurship. A number of his books, such as "Debunking Utopia", "The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox", "Renaissance for Reforms" and "SuperEntrepreneurs" have gained widespread international attention.

Photo: Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA (Protest against Donald Trump's Muslim ban) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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All this for 90 days?

All this, for a temporary ban of only 3 months? Are all those talented people really going to just check the US off their lists if their entry is delayed for only 90 days? To say that such a proposition strains credulity is to euphemize. As for the "not wanted," do these people not have access to the Internet? Do they not see all the crowds pouring into the streets specifically to hold up "Welcome Immigrants" signs? And seeing that the temporary suspension only affects something like 15% of the world's Muslim population--and for only 90 days at that--how would the other 85% understand this as "Muslims not welcome"? Such an understanding would be totally irrational and therefore could not possibly be the understanding of all those talented minds we want to attract. Also, it simply amazes me to see the same sort of people who yesterday were insisting that the era of the nation-state is over and that only reactionary racist types still thought in terms of "the nation" now suddenly argue against something they don't like in terms of US "national interest."

The plain fact is that the US is, always has been and will continue to be the world's immigration destination of choice. But if US policy does discourage some immigration, that is more a good thing than a bad thing, right?, because maybe then those exceptionally talented minds can remain in their home countries (like Pakistan) where they can help turn their native lands into places that people like them actually want to stay in rather than flee, er, emigrate from.

The authors should heed the advice of the sage Davis Love III: try less hard.