President Trump’s move last week to close the international offices of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) – which will make immigrating to the United States more difficult and more costly – continues America’s withdrawal from the world. On the heels of the travel ban, family separation, and a national emergency declaration, the move sends an unambiguous message to innovators, entrepreneurs, and hardworking men and women across the globe: take your talents and your dreams elsewhere.
As a son of refugees raised in Saudi Arabia who came to the US, started and sold two companies before I turned 30, and raised hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in more than 40 additional American companies, I’m particularly sensitive to that message.
Immigrants ensure America’s entrepreneurial edge and economic dynamism. Of Fortune 500 companies, 44 per cent were started by immigrants or the children of immigrants. From Apple to Bank of America to McDonald’s, immigrants make an outsized contribution to job-creation and growth. In fact, immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business than those born here.
The grit and determination of newcomers has driven American ingenuity over the course of its history. It’s what can help us solve the great challenges we face today, from climate change, to wealth inequality, to building a more merit-based playing field so that any American – from any neighborhood – has a real shot at success. All of which is why President Trump’s latest action is counterproductive, both in substance and in optics.
Just look at the numbers: student visas are down eight percent from 2017 to 2018. Among Indian students, they’re down 31 per cent over the past two years. And international student enrollment at American universities fell 6.6 per cent in 2017-2018 from the prior year, the second consecutive drop.
Growing up in Jeddah, I was enthralled by America’s promise. My family is Palestinian, and while we lived in Saudi Arabia, we didn’t feel it was home. It was from reading about America in magazines and books, watching American movies, listening to American music, and learning about the American dream, that allowed me to imagine a new home – in the states – where anything would be possible, and where I would be welcomed, so long as I worked for it.
At seventeen, I poured my energy into applying to American colleges, hoping to be accepted at one near the nation’s capital in Washington, DC. My dream came true when I received the offer letter from a university in Washington, only to learn, once I arrived, that there was another Washington – I ended up in Seattle. But in the 1990’s, there was less competition on the global stage. Students around the world were inspired to study in the US.
Today it’s different. International students don’t need to study in the US to realize their full potential. Certainly not when the president smears immigrants with a broad brush, and scares them with “public charge” rules and a citizenship question on the census. Not when he continues signaling to the world that we are no longer the place for the tired, poor, or “huddled masses yearning to be free.” And not when he is willing to kick out Dreamers who know no other home, and deport Temporary Protected Status (TPS) visa holders who have fled violence and persecution.
If I had heard that message when I was applying to colleges, I might not have come to America to study. I might not have launched a company from my dorm-room that forever changed my life, and endeared me to the promise this country has to offer.
This is why we need to change course, and why Congress needs to send to President Trump’s desk an immigration compromise that fixes our high-skilled system, provides permanent protections for Dreamers and TPS visa holders, and yes, enhances border security beyond symbolic gestures too. These are policies that have broad support. They’ll improve our economy and improve public safety.
And perhaps most importantly, they’ll demonstrate to the world that America is still open for business.
Ibrahim AlHusseini is founder and CEO of FullCycle, an investment company focused on reversing climate change. He was an early investor in Tesla Inc. He tweets @ialhusseini.