Amid the good news about the success of COVID-19 vaccine trials in recent days, one thing went unnoticed: The vaccines were created by immigrants, whose U.S. visas, at one time, could have been rejected by President Trump’s obtuse anti-immigration measures.
Trump, who started his 2016 campaign by promising to crack down on illegal immigration, has been increasingly shifting his energies to slow the influx of foreign students and skilled professionals into the United States. It has been an incredibly short-sighted policy that may hurt this country for years to come.
Moderna, the first company to announce a near 95 percent success rate with its COVID-19 vaccine, was founded by Lebanese-born Noubar Afeyan, who came to the United States to get his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has since started or co-founded 38 companies, and registered more than 100 patents.
The company’s CEO is Stephane Bancel, a native of France who came to the United States to do graduate studies in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota. He went on to get an MBA at Harvard’s business school.
The firm’s chief medical officer is Tal Zaks, an Israeli physician who came to this country to do his post-doctoral studies here.
Pfizer’s vaccine has a similar story, in that it was created by two Turkish immigrants in Germany.
But there are more immigrant success stories that made world headlines in recent days. The SpaceX aerospace company that flew the first private manned space ship in partnership with NASA to the International Space Station was created by Elon Musk, a South African immigrant.
Immigrants or their children have founded 45 percent of America’s Fortune 500 companies, according to a 2019 New American Economy study. They include the founders of Amazon, Apple and Google.
And yet, Trump has steadily restricted visas for foreign students and professionals as part of his populist anti-immigration crusade.
The number of new foreign students in U.S. colleges fell by a whopping 43 percent this year, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education. If you just count international students who are physically in the United States, the number fell by 72 percent this year, the study says.
While this year’s decline is partly because of the pandemic, the number of foreign students in U.S. colleges had already declined from 903,000 in 2016 to 851,000 in 2019, according to the U.S. State Department’s Open Doors study.
Among other restrictions, the Trump administration recently issued a rule raising by at least 40 percent the salaries that highly skilled professionals must be offered by employers to apply for H-1B visas, along with several other measures narrowing the eligibility of foreign students and skilled professionals to stay in the country.
“Trump has been increasingly targeting legal immigration,” says Vivek Wadhwa, a Silicon Valley-based Harvard Law School professor and author of several books about immigration and innovation. “He has been sabotaging skilled immigration for the past six months.”
President-elect Joe Biden should put an end to this nonsense. If he can’t pass immigration reform through Congress, he can single-handedly reverse many of Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders.
In addition to placing bureaucratic hurdles, Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric has discouraged international students and skilled workers from coming to America. Many of them have chosen to go to Canada, Australia or other countries, where they find a more welcoming climate should they want to pursue their careers there.
“Biden should resurrect the idea that America is a country of immigrants,” Dany Bahar, a Brookings Institution economist and immigration expert, told me. “He should send out the message that America is open to talent from anywhere in the world, from students to high-skilled workers.”
Indeed, if it weren’t for international students and skilled immigrants, we probably would have had to wait much longer for a COVID-19 vaccine, or to send a private manned rocket into space or for many other innovations that have helped make the United States the largest economy on Earth. The chance to put an end to Trump’s stupid anti-immigration policies couldn’t have come soon enough.
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