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One of the great strengths of the United States’ innovation system is its ability to draw top talent from the rest of the world. As Jared Diamond argued so eloquently in his landmark Guns, Germs, and Steel, talent is randomly distributed globally, but the way it is manifested depends on the societies in which talented people find themselves. By welcoming the best students from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere, and encouraging them to build careers here, the United States has enhanced its research universities, catalyzed the creation of brand-name growth companies, and built a reputation for openness that other countries seek to emulate, as ITIF research has shown.
This strength is now at risk. Travel restrictions due to COVID-19 are already putting severe pressure on international student recruitment. New policy proposals would make the problem much worse. The possible limitation or elimination of Optional Practical Training (OPT) is particularly worrisome. OPT allows foreign students who graduate from U.S. institutions to stay in the United States for a year to look for work related to their field of study. Graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields can stay for two years. For many prospective students who seek the opportunity to maximize their intellectual and entrepreneurial talents, the possibility of working in the United States after finishing school is a key factor in their decision to come in the first place. For their prospective employers, OPT provides a pool of talent that is not only well-trained but also acculturated to the United States, due to the experiences and relationships that foreign students build while in school.
If the United States restricts OPT, its competitors will jump at the chance to attract students who would otherwise come here. Europe, China, and the United Kingdom, among others, are all keenly aware of the long-term advantage that the United States has gained through highly skilled international migration. These competitors have developed a range of programs to recruit talent in recent years. Their programs will bear much greater fruit if the United States simply leaves the field.
Rather than restricting OPT, the United States should be pushing hard against the tidal forces of COVID-19 and economic distress. U.S. academic institutions should be encouraged to continue recruiting foreign students and offer them a chance to start online if the risks of travel and in-person instruction are temporarily elevated.
Highly skilled immigrants benefit not only themselves but also U.S. society, including native workers. There is strong evidence that immigrant entrepreneurs, many of whom come to the United States as students, create jobs, rather than take them away. Pushing them away now by restricting OPT would be a lose-lose proposition, tantamount to shooting ourselves in the foot.