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How to Pick Future Nobel-Prize Winners: An Immigration Parable


America is currently going through one of its periodic episodes where the advocacy of immigration ­restriction is fully on display. We hear discussions of walling off our country, of immigrants being vilified as criminals and security threats, and of immigration as a cause of economic decline, not economic renewal. Some politicians call for rejection of refugees, a refusal to allow resettlement of those fleeing persecution because of fear of those doing the persecuting.

Everything that is wrong with this ­restrictionist attitude can be illustrated with a true story—a true story that serves as a parable about the choices we make in immigration policy. This is the story of two boys who immigrated to the United States from the same city in the same year. They were not related and did not even know each other, but they fled to the United States at 8 and 10 years old. Life had become impossible for their families—it seemed the whole population of the country had turned against them. One boy’s father owned a store, which was destroyed and looted by a mob. The other boy’s father had a ­business, but had to spend everything he had to get himself and his family out. Eight and 10 years old, each of those boys came to the United States with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few relatives to take them in.

What would become of those two boys in their new country? Both had families who worked hard to provide for them in their new country, and insisted that their children do well in school and better themselves. Both boys did well in high school and were given scholarships to Harvard University. Both developed careers in the sciences, one in neurophysiology, and the other in chemistry. By now, you may have guessed where this story is going. Those two boys were refugees, younger sons of two Jewish families who left Vienna in 1938 as Hitler’s Germany absorbed Austria. Each of them became ground-breaking ­scientists after their education in the United States. In 2000, Eric Kandel was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, and in 2013, Martin Karplus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Kandel and Karplus are not alone—the United States leads the world in the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to its citizens. Immigration is a huge part of that success—in fact, when we look at all of the American winners of the Nobel Prize since 1906, we find that almost exactly one out of three of them were won by Americans who had immigrated to the United States. That statistic is more impressive when we realize that at the time these scientists were doing the work for which their Nobel prizes were awarded, immigrants made up fewer than one out 10 people living in the United States.

Kandel and Karplus present us with an important lesson about our selection of immigrants. Today, everyone can agree that they have proven themselves to be overachievers. At the time those boys arrived in the United States, however, they were 8 and 10, and they had almost nothing. They could be children today, arriving at our borders escaping from war-torn Syria or Iraq, fleeing from gang violence in Guatemala or Honduras, or escaping from the economic troubles of Venezuela or Brazil. Each of those boys, in the view of immigration restrictionists, was an immediate economic burden on the United States. After all, when they arrived, their parents worked in menial jobs for low wages, and the boys attended public school. They were “chain migrants,” one family coming to join the mother’s ­parents, the other to join an uncle. And yet, each of them was able to achieve the pinnacle of success in their fields, by making their career in the United States because it welcomed them when they had nothing.

Our immigration system has pathways for those who have achieved success, whether that is through extraordinary ability in the arts, sciences, or business; through ­managerial careers developed internationally and continued in the United States; or through investment of personal or family funds to create jobs in the United States. In providing a pathway for these immigrants, the United States welcomes those whom it is most clear we should attract, viewed as a merely economic matter. Those pathways are important, and should be maintained. To focus on them, however, is to miss out on the genius of the great tradition of American immigration and its benefits for the United States.

The U.S. immigration policy has not ­succeeded by only attracting those ­immigrants who, by objective measures of the world’s success, have already demonstrated their potential. No, the immigration policy has succeeded precisely because it has ­welcomed the tired, the poor and the tempest-tossed—it has welcomed Nobel Prize winners like Karplus and Kandel when they arrived as child refugees. It has ­welcomed business founders when they arrived as family-based immigrants. It has welcomed scientists and entrepreneurs when they arrived on student visas.

If the United States succumbs to restrictionist rhetoric and limits further the ability of families, refugees and others whose potential has not already been reached, the impact will not be felt immediately. That is not to say the impact will not be felt at all, though, and we may never know the future Nobel prize winners we have turned away.

Reprinted with permission from the June 15, 2016 edition of the The Legal Intelligencer© 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.

Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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