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POV: Immigration Ban Hurts Universities, the Economy, Society

Trump’s executive order is morally wrong, says BU president


The new administration’s executive order to temporarily ban people from seven Muslim nations from entering the United States is fundamentally inconsistent with the values that are the bedrock of higher education, and indeed, of our pluralistic, welcoming society. The executive order diminishes our nation as a beacon for freedom and opportunity. As an academic community, we must stand together to support one another at this time of uncertainty and use a clear voice to affirm our principles and voice our deep concern.

The moral argument against the action is amply clear. It has been described in many editorials and think pieces in the last several days. The order, now partially stayed by federal judges, may be more symbolic than effective in the long run, but the symbolism is extremely troubling, because it plays to base fears and bias against foreigners and sets us on a path to see every immigrant as a threat. In universities, we see things very differently. We believe that open immigration is good for the long-term health of higher education, our country, our economy, and our society.

There are countless examples of immigrants who have come to America, attended our universities, and shared their knowledge for the benefit of all. Elon Musk came from South Africa to study at the University of Pennsylvania before he built the world’s leading electric car producer, Tesla Motors, and founded Space X, the company that aims to colonize Mars. Beirut-born Noubar Afeyan made his way to MIT, where he earned a PhD, and went on to launch Moderna Therapeutics to pioneer new medicines for cancer and infectious and cardiovascular diseases. Pakistan-born Muhammad Zaman, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor of Biomedical Engineering and International Health and a Boston University College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering, has developed a low-cost portable device that can detect counterfeit drugs, such as the poor-quality antimalarials that killed more than 122,000 children in sub-Saharan Africa in 2013. And Jhumpa Lahiri (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97), born in London to Bengali parents, earned three degrees at Boston University on her way to becoming one of the world’s most acclaimed novelists.

These are not isolated examples. Consider the facts. More than one third of American innovators—founders of start-ups and spin-offs—were born outside the United States, according to a recent study by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. Two thirds of these immigrant innovators hold doctorates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or math from American universities. There is more. A recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that more than half of the US start-ups worth $1 billion were founded by immigrants, and nearly a quarter of these were started by men and women who came to the United States as international students. And since 2000, 40 percent of the Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine have been won by immigrants. It is clear that immigrants are a critical driving force at the frontiers of our economy.

American colleges and universities play their part. More international students pursue higher education in the United States than in any other country in the world; the United States hosted over a million of these students last year, according to the Institute of International Education. Nearly 30 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded by American universities in 2015 went to men and women holding student visas from other countries. In engineering, mathematics, and computer science, the share of doctorates earned by those here on student visas rises to half. America’s higher education system is the beacon that draws these talented young people.

Nowhere is this meritocratic exchange more robust than in Boston and Cambridge, the center of the world’s greatest concentration of top-tier research universities. Classrooms and research labs on both sides of the Charles River attract the world’s best and brightest students. These capable, hardworking young people make our universities better and more vibrant places. As undergraduates, they enliven campus life and challenge their fellow students’ sometimes-provincial perspectives. They help build an understanding of the interconnected global world all our students will share. As graduate researchers, they can be found in our classrooms and labs at all hours, working with their mentors to develop original ideas and insights, running experiments and calculations, on their way to being independent scientists and engineers.

Many of our international students stay on after graduation to work in our universities and in industry. They launch start-ups that generate investment returns, bring inventions to market, and create jobs. Others go back to their home countries and become leaders there. They leave us with enduring friendships and an understanding of America that will pave the way for smoother international relations. It is heartbreaking to read reports of young scholars from Muslim countries who in recent days have been prevented from returning to their studies at our universities.

Other universities around the world are moving to emulate our success, and international students have increasing choices, as other nations—from Britain to China to Singapore—aggressively expand their higher education systems and establish their own innovation hubs.

I believe the United States must offer international students a heartfelt, unequivocal welcome—backed up by consistent and thoughtful immigration policies based on American values of fairness and objectivity. We also should not delude ourselves into believing convenient justifications for limited restrictions. The world is watching what we do. Segregating international students and immigrants on the basis of religion or nationality sends the message to the world that the United States is not the land of freedom and opportunity that we value, but a place of bias and suspicion. The long-term consequences of these restrictions will diminish our universities, our economy, and what America stands for in the world.

Historically, our nation’s embrace of these smart, talented, and hardworking young people has stemmed from our commitment to important American values: cultural tolerance, intellectual curiosity, and academic freedom. I hope the new administration appreciates how much of our greatness throughout our history and in the future will be created by people from foreign lands. I hope those in Washington will rethink their position on visas and immigrants and move to uphold one of our core values, one that has led America and our research universities to being the greatest places in the world to study, live, and work. We must step up our commitment to educating foreign students, not turn them away. We should be making it easier for them to stay. We need them as much as they need us.

Robert A. Brown is the president of Boston University. This commentary first appeared in the Boston Globe on January 30, 2017.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.eduBU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions.


11 Comments on POV: Immigration Ban Hurts Universities, the Economy, Society

  • Logic Rules on 01.31.2017 at 9:23 am

    While the immigration ban is not optimal, its purpose of protecting inhabitants
    is beyond reproach.

    • Daniel W Benedetti on 01.31.2017 at 11:51 am

      Actually it is not beyond reproach – it is in fact making us >less< safe already. The ban is a dream come true for ISIS recruitment; anyone who thinks otherwise is naive. I have one word for the ban: un-American.

      • Andrew Wolfe on 01.31.2017 at 12:46 pm

        To think any of our actions being “friendly” will limit ISIS/Al-Qaeda recruitment, apart from attacking and defeating them, is provably false. Their aggression is only amplified by our attempts to appease them, which we have seen time and time again throughout history with other expansionist totalitarian movements. To think we’re provoking more jihadi recruitment with immigration restrictions is delusional. They are recruiting by claiming we are anti-Islam and pro-Israel, and portraying some sort of apocalyptic, glorious David-vs-Goliath showdown. This sort of immigration action isn’t even on their radar for radicalizing youths and recruiting jihadis.

        • Logic Rules on 01.31.2017 at 3:10 pm

          Thanks Andrew…I couldn’t have said it better

  • Web on 01.31.2017 at 11:35 am

    Please explain how a 90 day suspension of immigration and visa issuance from a handful countries (that are either failed states or sponsors of terrorism) hurts universities? Seems a bit hyperbolic.

  • Silvia Glick on 01.31.2017 at 2:29 pm

    Thank you, President Brown, for your moral leadership on this issue. President Trump seeks to be an authoritarian leader, and he will accomplish this if we sit back and let him destroy the freedoms on which this country was built. Dividing people into “us” and “them” is the first step towards treating “them” as nonhuman. Trump tells us that only he can “fix” things. He tells us that all news with which he disagrees is “fake.” We all need to fight for our country before it’s too late.

  • Ava on 01.31.2017 at 5:44 pm

    Moral objection is meaningless when you don’t back it up with action. What concrete proactive steps will you be taking to ensure Boston University students will be protected from this ban? What are you doing to ensure Boston University does not further the agendas of those that seek to see this ban through? The communications out of your office talk a good game, but you’ve shown no interest in working with student groups to make Boston University a sanctuary campus or even put forth a solid statement against complying with this sanction. If Boston’s Mayor is willing to come out so strongly against this ban and put his job on the line in doing so, why aren’t you? What are you so afraid of? Are your priorities truly in protecting your students? Where were you yesterday if you maintain a moral objection to these bans — your students were out rallying and protesting? Where were you? What are you actually doing to back up these words?

  • Sam Kauffmann on 01.31.2017 at 7:51 pm

    I appreciate President Brown’s thoughtful and forceful comments. University leadership is most meaningful when it swiftly opposes hatred, bigotry and ignorance. Thanks for taking a stand on all our behalf.

  • Peter on 02.01.2017 at 8:50 am

    I guarantee MA Attorney General Maura Healey’s anti-2nd Amendment reinterpretation of MA Gun laws this past summer negatively affects more United States citizens then President Trump’s TEMPORARY ban on travel from 7 countries identified by the Obama administration as “having a terrorist organization with a significant presence in the area, or the country was deemed a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists.”

  • Lauren on 02.01.2017 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you, President Brown, for sharing this perspective. I am always proud to be an alumna of Boston University, but these types of statements make me even prouder to be part of this welcoming community. I look forward to this returning to a land of opportunity and promise and believe that my many fellow BU alumni (both international and domestic students during their time at BU) will help lead this charge. It cannot be clearer than the words on the Statue of Liberty itself:

    “From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

  • Joseph Mente on 02.02.2017 at 2:51 pm

    It seems the terrorist recruitment argument is the only one the Left can defend without sounding ridiculous. It can be argued that the Tsarnaev boys were treated ‘harshly’ after they bombed the Boston Marathon. Since then I’ve seen no study suggesting that their ‘mistreatment’ increased marathon bomber recruiting. Nor have I seen any definitive studies citing specific techniques used by ISIS to enhance their recruiting. It’s all been idle speculation. Letting anyone into the US without proper vetting is irresponsible. Please recall, the POTUS has a Constitutional responsibility to safeguard the safety of US Citizens.

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