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How Trump Threatens America's Talent Edge

His executive order will discourage the high-skill newcomers that the U.S. economy needs to compete globally.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Trump's executive order on immigration threatens what goes to the very core of America's innovative edge: the ability to attract global talent. Even if the ban is lifted, the damage has been done. Global talent has been put on alert.

America’s science and tech edge has long been fueled by the talented immigrants it attracts from across the world. Immigrants have played an incredibly important role in America’s high-technology competitiveness. Foreign talent makes up a huge share of America’s science and technology workforce, and from a third to half of the founding teams of significant U.S. technology startups.

The reality is that high-skill immigrants can choose where to go. For decades, they’ve picked the United States and those choices have benefitted us. But they can just as easily pick other places. More than a decade ago, in my book The Flight of the Creative Class, I pointed out that efforts to restrict the flow of immigrants to the United States would have serious economic consequences. This was a smaller threat a decade or two ago, when global competitors were less established. The U.S. could rest on its “talent laurels."

But today, there are a handful of countries and dozens of global cities with great universities that can effectively compete for high-skill immigrants. Countries like Canada and Australia have come to understand the economic advantages of attracting immigrants and have upped their efforts to attract top talent from around the globe.

The U.S. is already losing the competition for talent

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Sari Pekkala Kerr, William Kerr, Çaǧlar Özden, and Christopher Parsons drives this point home. They outline how the U.S. has fallen behind in attracting immigrants and how much it benefits from their dense clustering in knowledge-based cities and metros like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Boston-New York-Washington Corridor.

An especially worrying trend the study points out: Even before Trump, the U.S. has been losing the competition for talent. The chart below is a bit wonky but it tells the tale. It compares the share of immigrants with high school educations in 1990 to the share in 2010 across a whole bunch of countries.

Proportion of high-skill migrants to countries in 1990 and 2010 (Sari Kerr et al.)

The countries that are above the line—like Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Norway and yes, even Mexico, have grown their share of more highly educated immigrants. The U.S. is the big dot that sits below the line; its share of more educated immigrants has fallen relative to other nations. Trump’s immigration crackdown comes at the worst possible time for America’s ability to attract global talent.

The map below shows the extreme clustering across the Bos-Wash Corridor, along the West Coast from Los Angeles and Southern California to the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest as well as Chicago, Miami, and the border areas of Texas and Arizona. The darkly shaded places in the interior of the country are largely college towns, which have long functioned as key immigrant gateways, in effect comprising the Ellis Islands of our time. Immigrants not only cluster geographically, but by occupation and industry—for example computer scientists and software engineers in the Bay Area or mathematical finance whizzes in Manhattan, magnifying their positive impacts, as the study notes.

Regional distribution of high-skill migrants in 2010. (Sari Kerr et al.)

As the authors point out, immigrants to the United States haven take home larger shares of Nobel Prizes; they’ve won half of the nation’s Fields Medals for outstanding achievements in mathematics and a third of its Man Booker prizes for literature. And of course, America’s science and tech workforce broadly depends on the considerable numbers of highly educated foreign students it attracts in fields computer science, software engineering, math, and other science and engineering fields.

Indeed, by declaring war on sanctuary cities, Donald Trump has effectively declared war on half the U.S. economy. Cutting off federal funding would hurt these cities drastically. But harming their economic output could even more disastrous for the U.S. economy writ large.

The metro areas encompassed by the fifteen sanctuary cities below make up 45 percent of the entire U.S. economy, according to data put together by my colleague Steven Pedigo, who heads up the Urban Lab at NYU’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.

The fifteen largest sanctuary cities and their metropolitan areas’ gross regional product, in millions. (Steven Pedigo/Data from Bureau of Economic Analysis 2015 and U.S. Census Community Survey 2015)

Immigrants benefit the U.S. enormously—but they no longer need to come here. Global talent is already heading to cities and nations outside the United States. The Trump administration’s moves to limit immigration pose a deep threat to America’s ability to attract global talent, to its innovative prowess, and ultimately, to the living standards of its people.

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