The outsized role of Arab inventors in America

While President Donald Trump’s initial travel ban barring citizens from seven countries has been stalled in the courts, academics and policy wonks are examining how immigration affects the U.S. on everything from economic growth to the cost of deportation. 

One group of researchers is taking a novel approach by looking at the impact that Arabs have had on U.S. innovation. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the researchers single out well known Arab scientists such as Ahmed Zewail, who won the 1999 Nobel prize in chemistry or Apollo landing scientist Farouk El-Baz, and ask the question about how Arab immigrants more broadly have aided U.S. innovation. 

The answer: quite significantly. Out of all U.S. patent applications from 2009 to 2013, about 3.4 percent had at least one Arab inventor, even though this group represents just 0.3 percent of the total U.S. population, the researchers from INSEAD and the Austrian Institutes of Technology wrote. 

California serves as a center for Arab inventors, with more patent filings from the group than any country outside the U.S. About 16 percent of all Arab patents worldwide come from the state, they noted. 

“President Trump has campaigned on the platform of ‘making America great again,’ but the evidence we have suggests that his punitive visa system will make this a more difficult goal to achieve,” wrote INSEAD’s Sami Mahroum and Georg Zahradnik and Bernhard Dachs of the Austrian Institutes of Technology. 

The research comes as President Trump is expected to release a revised version of the executive order that seveal courts have blocked. The original order banned entry to the U.S. for citizens of seven countries, including Iraq, Iran and Syria. The revised ban is now expected to be released next week, and it’s believed that the new version won’t apply to green card holders or to those already on their way to the U.S. 

Many large technology companies have spoken out against Mr. Trump’s travel ban and views on immigration, arguing that they not only violate immigration laws but hamper businesses from hiring the best talent from across the globe. Dozens of tech companies, including Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT) and Facebook (FB), filed an amicus brief that opposed the ban. 

Some economists are warning that Mr. Trump’s policies could come at a cost for America. The administration’s attempts to deport illegal immigrants and bar refugees from certain countries may crimp GDP growth by 0.5 percent, Oxford Economics said in a research note this week. 

Arab inventors aren’t as likely as skilled workers from other countries to use the H-1B visa system, which Mr. Trump has been criticized as being “very, very bad for workers.” Opponents of the visa say it allows U.S. employers to hire skilled foreign workers at wages that are lower than what they would have to pay American employees. 

The administration’s stance indicates “a desire to generally limit foreign entry into the U.S. (as illustrated by a recent bill introduced in Congress by junior senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue) which will cut the economy off from important sources of growth from labor, education and tourism,” Oxford Economics chief economist Gregory Daco wrote in the report.

Arab inventors may immigrate to the U.S. through a number of routes beyond  H-1B visas, such as through family members, nonskilled visas and the refugee system, the researchers said. Arab immigrants tend to be better educated than native-born Americans and other immigrants, they added. About four out of 10 have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with about three out of 10 native-born Americans and the broader immigrant pool. 

“The recent visa ban on citizens from or born in seven countries in the Middle East and Africa has negative implications for American and foreign companies in the U.S., especially those with R&D operations,” the researchers noted. “The management of R&D projects will become more difficult and less efficient as the movement of personnel between firms’ U.S. and international sites becomes more complicated.”