Earlier this month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that international students attending universities that switch to online-only courses in the fall would be required to leave the United States. By threatening student visas, the Trump administration, which has been pushing to reopen businesses and schools despite the continuing pandemic, was widely seen as pressuring colleges to resume in-person classes. If implemented, the visa policy could have driven away thousands of brilliant minds—the brainpower that, for decades, has proved essential to entrepreneurship and technological innovation in the United States.
In the end, immigration officials backed down amid legal challenges, but some damage was already done: The administration had added to the uncertainty swirling about America’s crucial higher-education sector, while also signaling to young people overseas that, should they ever want to attend an American university, they might not be welcome.
The visa debacle was only the latest of many ominous signs for the United States, long the world’s primary incubator of new technologies, new drugs, new therapies, and new business models. The coronavirus pandemic and the administration’s botched response to it are damaging the engine of American innovation in three major ways: The flow of talented people from overseas is slowing; the university hubs that produce basic research and development are in financial turmoil; and the circulation of people and ideas in high-productivity industrial clusters, such as Silicon Valley, has been impeded.