William Kerr: Importance of Effective Immigration Policies, Even During a Global Pandemic

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on June 9, 2020


Talent flows to where it is most productively utilized and welcome, and while the destination of choice has long been the United States, other countries are increasingly challenging America’s dominance.
- William Kerr from his article, “Immigration Policies Threaten American Competitiveness”


Harvard Business School professor William Kerr shares insights from recent research on business leaders’ views about high-skilled immigration. In “Immigration Policies Threaten American Competitiveness,” Professor Kerr discusses “business leaders’ rising anxiety about America’s complacency in competing for this [global, high-skilled] talent and the negative impact on America’s competitiveness that could result.”


In this article that he wrote for Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, Professor Kerr provides key takeaways from the chapter on America’s immigration system in "A Recovery Squandered: The State of U.S. Competitiveness 2019" (Harvard Business School, December 2019). Conducted with several Harvard Business School colleagues, this report is built from surveying thousands of Harvard Business School alumni and eight years of research on the competitiveness of the United States.


Below are a few excerpts from “Immigration Policies Threaten American Competitiveness” by William Kerr.


Immigrants Among Those Leading the Effort to Develop a Vaccine for the Coronavirus


Immigrants can be found in times of success and times of crisis. Examples include:

  • Among the American companies leading the race toward a vaccine to end the COVID-19 pandemic is Moderna, a Cambridge company with an immigrant co-founder and an immigrant CEO.
  • Another firm already conducting vaccine trials is Inovio Pharmaceuticals of Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, led by cofounder J. Joseph Kim. Kim, who came to the United States from South Korea at age 11 without speaking English, was among the pharmaceutical leaders who briefed President Trump on vaccine development in March.

America’s Message to Global Innovators


But talent is movable, and the United States must cherish and protect its prized position at the center of the global talent flow. At a time of crisis when fear is used to shift blame onto outsiders, America is at risk of signaling to global innovators and entrepreneurs, and the promising students who will one day become them, that they cannot have a future here.


Survey Findings from Harvard Business School Alumni


Our alumni were overwhelmingly supportive of skilled immigration. Over 90 percent said that foreign skilled workers have a positive effect on the US economy, and 87 percent believe that the United States should allow more highly skilled immigrants to move here to work and live.


Alumni also confirmed the importance of foreign skilled workers to their companies’ ability to compete. Nearly one in four said that at least 15 percent of their companies’ US-based skilled workforce was foreign born. Alumni expressed that immigrants were critical for developing better products and services, increasing the quality of innovation, and reaching international customers.


Reform Suggestions for U.S. Immigration Policy


Because immigration is often a political third rail, there are many reasons to be skeptical that the United States will soon find a broad solution. In fact, when it comes to skilled immigration, our research shows more support for minor changes to the current system than for more fundamental reforms. Over two-thirds of alumni supported increasing the number of new H-1B visas issued each year by at least 50 percent. For much of the past decade, H-1B visas have run out within a single week. Despite even the COVID-19 pandemic, the government received 275,000 applications in March of this year for the 85,000 slots in fiscal year 2021.


American Competitiveness at Risk


Either way, the stakes get higher in times of crisis: the recent H-1B visa lottery would have given the same chances to a critical researcher being recruited by Moderna and Inovio (or J&J and GlaxoSmithKline) [pharmaceutical companies] as it would have to a software code tester working at an outsourcing company.


While we may temporarily close borders as we fight COVID-19, business must articulate just how disastrous closing our borders long-term would be. Some of the recent political rhetoric to halt all immigration, even if later scaled back in practice, endangers the image of America as a welcoming beacon to the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs. Other countries are creating innovative new programs to attract talent and threaten our competitive advantage, while our government issues executive orders and espouses rhetoric that undermine our promise to the world’s brightest.


Read the full article by Professor William Kerr: “Immigration Policies Threaten American Competitiveness” (Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, May 11, 2020).


William Kerr is the D’Arbeloff Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He is also the co-director of Harvard’s Managing the Future of Work initiative and the faculty chair of the Launching New Ventures program for executive education. Professor Kerr’s research centers on how companies and economies explore new opportunities and generate growth. In his book, The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society (2018), Professor Kerr explores the global race for talent and how countries and businesses compete for high-skilled migrants. The book reveals how immigration has transformed U.S. innovation, reshaped the economy through the rise of talent clusters and superstar firms, and influenced society at large in positive and adverse ways.