On Feb. 11, President Trump signed the American Artificial Intelligence Initiative, an executive order that aims to spur the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, which is touted as the future of everything from consumer products to health care to warfare. However, the Trump administration’s increasingly restrictive immigration policies are systematically depriving US universities of some of the world’s top talent in AI. If the US wants to lead the global AI race, it must reverse such policies.
Historically, US innovation has been predicated on its ability to attract and retain foreign talent, and immigrant inventors were responsible for some of the most fundamental technologies which still influence our lives today. For instance, Nikola Tesla, Serbian, worked in America on alternating current electrical systems; Alexander Graham Bell, Scottish, was instrumental to the development of the telephone from a workshop in Boston; and David Lindquist, Swedish, assigned his patents of the electric elevator while living in New York.
The same applies to AI technology, but Trump has spent the past two years of his presidency pushing away foreign-born scientists by means of restrictive visa policies. Furthermore, he has alienated them through his rhetoric; his decision to declare a national emergency to build a border wall is merely the latest example. The result is a brain drain that technology companies and academic research labs alike have bemoaned.
The Trump administration has so far made it harder for foreigners to obtain H-1B visas, which allow highly skilled workers to perform specialized jobs. The visa process now takes longer, lawyers report that more applications are getting denied, and computer programmers no longer qualify as filling a specialty occupation under the H-1B program. Even the lucky few who do obtain the coveted visas may have a hard time settling in the US because the administration has signaled that it may terminate the H-4EAD program, which enables the spouses of H-1B holders to live and work in the US.
It is hard to overstate how anxiety-provoking this can be for authorized immigrant families, whether or not they work in AI. Imagine not knowing, for months at a stretch, whether you will get to keep working in the US, or whether you and your partner will be able to live in the same country. Facing such uncertainty, some would-be applicants prefer to pursue less stressful options in countries that actually seem to welcome them.
Canada is a prime example. The country, which hosts some of the very best AI researchers in technology hubs such as Toronto and Montreal, was the first in the world to announce a national AI strategy: in March 2017, it invested $125 million in the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy. That summer, it also established a fast-track visa option for highly skilled foreign workers. Consequently, Canadian universities have reported a significant uptick in interest from international students.
In contrast, Trump’s executive order doubles down on his “America first” philosophy. It mandates that agencies which provide educational grants on AI give preference to American citizens. This approach fits well with Trump’s conviction that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, take jobs away from US workers; he is merely applying that principle to the field of AI researchers.
However, the stated objective of the executive order is not to protect the job prospects of individual Americans, but rather to protect Americans at large from being overtaken by other countries in the AI race. As such, it is most effective to choose the job candidates — wherever he comes from — who will do the best job at beefing up America’s AI strategy so that it can ultimately benefit all American citizens.
As prospective immigrants, students, and workers in the US economy, the American Artificial Intelligence Initiative should promise a conducive environment for us to spearhead the future. However, the reality is that a sizeable majority of the student body lacks a US passport and must obtain a student visa upon graduation. Ultimately, Trump can ensure that America benefits from their contribution, thereby solidifying its place as an AI superpower. Or he can try to keep AI jobs out of their hands. But he must choose.