It’s a “scandal,” proclaimed Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., that American universities are training China’s “brightest minds” so they can return to China and help it compete with the United States.
His solution? Deny visas to Chinese students coming to the United States to study science.
“If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America,” Cotton said Sunday on Fox News. “They don’t need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America.”
For once, Cotton may be right about an immigration-related problem: It’s not ideal for U.S.-trained scientists to take their valuable knowledge outside the country. But the solution isn’t to keep them out. It’s to encourage them to stay in the United States after training — and strengthen our economy, as immigrant scientists have done throughout U.S. history.
It’s hard to know what triggered Cotton’s rant, which coincides with other xenophobic rhetoric and actions. Perhaps it is political posturing; a leaked GOP strategy memo recently advised Senate candidates: “don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban — attack China.”
Of course, it’s possible that these comments were driven by genuine beliefs. Cotton and White House aide Stephen Miller have sought for years to permanently reduce immigration, including through legislation that would cut legal immigration by half.
But restricting student visas — or, worse, banning nearly all visas for Chinese students — would effectively be an act of self-sabotage.
One reason is that higher education is among America’s most successful exports. Students around the globe dream of studying in the United States, but visa processing delays and bigoted rhetoric have already discouraged them from coming. This has financial repercussions for the American students whose tuition is subsidized by full-freight-paying foreign students.
More broadly, immigrants trained in STEM fields are critical to the U.S. economy and U.S. military might.
Nearly a century ago, German Jewish emigres who fled the Nazis revolutionized U.S. science and innovation, as documented in a study of patent records by economists Petra Moser, Alessandra Voena and Fabian Waldinger. Without these and other immigrants, Moser pointed out in an interview, there likely wouldn’t have been a Manhattan Project.
Moser has also researched the inverse of this phenomenon: restrictive immigration quotas, set in the 1920s, that kept out Eastern and Southern European scientists. Fields these scientists worked in recorded substantially less innovation — primarily because keeping out the foreign-born scientists made native-born ones less innovative.
“More than 90% of the decline in American invention that we see is driven by people born in the U.S.,” Moser said of her research with Shmuel San. “American scientists became less productive as a result of not being able to work with the foreign-born.”
History is littered with examples of talented immigrants who came to America and revolutionized their fields — as well as those who were turned away from the United States and took their innovations and collaborations elsewhere.
For instance, Hungarian-born Paul Erdos, the founder of discrete mathematics, was a professor at Notre Dame when he was denied a reentry visa in 1954 after refusing to condemn Karl Marx. In the years before his denial, 60% of his new co-authors had been based in the United States; in the time that he was barred, only 24% were.
In more current examples, more than half of the most highly valued tech companies in the United States were founded by immigrants. Some recent immigrant entrepreneurs almost didn’t have the opportunity to launch companies here. The founder of Zoom, for instance, is a Chinese immigrant whose first eight visa applications were denied.
Today, foreign-born students are massively overrepresented in STEM departments across the United States because there simply aren’t enough Americans filling the slots. By and large, these international students want to stay here. In recent National Science Foundation surveys, more than eight in 10 Chinese-born doctoral recipients said they intended to work in the United States after graduation.
Even without Cotton’s proposed ban, though, that number had been decreasing.
There are already barriers to staying here: Long queues for green cards, determined by modern-day quota systems, have measurably reduced the number of U.S.-trained STEM doctoral recipients from China and India who decide to stay, according to research from economists Shulamit Kahn and Megan MacGarvie. Greater scientific investment in their countries has also lured home talented U.S.-trained doctoral recipients.
To the extent that Cotton or others worry about industrial espionage, by all means, prosecute such crimes. But barring the best and brightest from studying here — and learning not only American technical knowledge but also American values — will only handicap our ability to compete.
Catherine Rampell’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.