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New nation, new ideas: A study finds immigrants out-innovate native-born Americans

An America flag flies near the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
An America flag flies near the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island.

Sergey Brin, co-founder Google; Satya Nadella, head of Microsoft; Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood actress who, quite incredibly, was also a pioneering inventor behind Wi-Fi and bluetooth; Elon Musk; Chien-Shiung Wu, who helped America build the first atom bomb; Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone; James Naismith, the inventor of basketball; Nikola Tesla, one of the most important minds behind the creation of electricity and radio.

What do all these innovators have in common? They were all immigrants to the United States.

Many studies over the years have suggested that immigrants are vital to our nation's technological and economic progress. Today, around a quarter of all workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are immigrants.

But while there's plenty of evidence suggesting that immigrants play an important role in American innovation, a group of economists — Shai Bernstein, Rebecca Diamond, Abhisit Jiranaphawiboon, Timothy McQuade, and Beatriz Pousada — wanted to find a more precise estimate of how much immigrants contribute.

In a fascinating new working paper, the economists link patent records to more than 230 million Social Security numbers. With this incredible dataset, they are able to suss out who among patent-holders are immigrants (by cross-referencing their year of birth and the year they were assigned their Social Security number).

The economists find that, between 1990 and 2016, 16 percent of all US inventors were immigrants. More than that, they find that the "average immigrant is substantially more productive than the average US-born inventor." Immigrant inventors produced almost a quarter of all patents during this period. These patents were disproportionately likely to be cited (a sign that they were valuable to their fields) and seem to have more financial value than the typical native-born patent. The economists also find evidence suggesting that immigrant inventors help native-born inventors become more productive. All in all, the economists estimate that immigrants are responsible for roughly 36% of innovation in America.

As for why immigrant inventors tend to be so productive and innovative, the economists entertain various explanations. Immigrant innovators may be motivated to come — and are able to come — to the United States because there's something special about their character, intelligence, or motivation. Or maybe it's because they live, work, and think differently when they come here. The economists find these immigrants tend to move to the most productive areas of the country. They tend to have a greater number of collaborators when they work here. And, as the economists write, they also "appear to facilitate the importation of foreign knowledge into the United States, with immigrant inventors relying more heavily on foreign technologies and collaborating more with foreign inventors."

Immigrants, they suggest, help create a melting pot of knowledge and ideas, which has clear benefits when it comes to innovation.

It's Hard Being An Immigrant These Days

Many immigrants working in innovation sectors are here on H1-B visas, which allow around 85,000 people to come to the United States each year, and create a potential pathway for them to become legal permanent residents. These visas tether immigrants to a particular job. But, as our NPR colleague Stacey Vanek Smith reported last month, "if they lose that job, a countdown clock starts." They have 60 days to find a new job or they must exit the country.

With financial turmoil roiling the tech sector, companies have been laying off tons of workers. As Stacey reported, there are now thousands of unemployed H1-B visa holders frantically trying to find new jobs so they can stay in the country. But ongoing layoffs and hiring freezes are making that particularly difficult.

In a recent editorial, the editors of Bloomberg argue that the current struggle of immigrants in tech "underscores how a flawed system is jeopardizing America's ability to attract and retain the foreign-born talent it needs." This system, they argue, is "not only cruel but self-defeating... rather than expanding the pipeline for skilled foreign workers, the US's onerous policies are increasingly pushing them away, with pro-immigration countries like Canada and Australia becoming more attractive destinations for global talent."

With the United States taking an increasingly nativist turn in recent years, it's become more common to hear anti-immigrant rhetoric, about them taking jobs, committing crimes, and "replacing" us. The economists' new study serves as another potent reminder that immigrants have tremendous value for our economy. Not just as a cheap labor force, but as a group of innovators who help us build new businesses, create jobs, make our companies more productive, and produce products and ideas that enrich our lives and improve our standard of living. Call it the Great Enhancement Theory.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.

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