Immigrants have helped generate some of America’s most beloved inventions. Alexander Graham Bell, born in Scotland, helped develop the telephone. David Lindquist, a Swede, was the chief engineer at Otis, and pioneered the electric elevator. Herman Frasch, born in Germany, worked in America on a process that would become fracking.
Countries don’t only welcome immigrants because they are good inventors; the best argument for allowing people to migrate from places of conflict or economic malaise might be basic human decency—which is one reason there is so much uproar over President Trump’s executive order limiting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. But immigrants are also essential to America’s innovative spirit: Tech companies including Apple, Google, and Facebook filed an amicus brief protesting that the ban “threatens companies’ ability to attract talent, business, and investment to the United States.”
Immigrants have historically helped boost the ingenuity of some American regions and industries, according to a new paper by the University of Chicago economists Ufuk Akcigit and John Grigsby, and Harvard Business School’s Tom Nicholas. The authors looked at sectors with higher shares of foreign-born inventors between 1940 and 2000, and found that those areas produced more patents and inventions than those with a higher share of native-born inventors. (This is similar to findings in a 2014 paper that found that fields welcoming a large number of Jewish emigres from Nazi Germany saw patents rise 31 percent.) Why count patents? Patents are associated with economic growth: In a separate paper, the authors find that the states with higher shares of patents filed experienced more economic growth than those that were less inventive.