Flashpoints | Security

The Uneven Effects of US Restrictive Immigration Policy for Chinese Nationals

The Trump administration’s immigration will have negative — but uneven — effects on both the United States and China.

Robert Farley
The Uneven Effects of US Restrictive Immigration Policy for Chinese Nationals
Credit: Flickr/ White House

U.S. President Donald J. Trump has issued an executive order to sharply curtail the issuance of visas for foreign workers in the United States. Trump and Stephen Miller, the chief voice within the administration for restrictive immigration policies, have argued that the economic downturn accompanying the coronavirus pandemic necessitate limiting immigration because of the need to favor American workers. In fact, Miller and Trump have long opposed such immigration, even as unemployment approached record lows. Trump has largely ignored complaints from U.S. industry, and also some complaints from within his own party.

Andrew Kennedy’s book Conflicted Superpower examined the issue from the perspective of immigration policy in the United States, and emigration policy in China and India. Kennedy makes the case that technology innovation has increasingly become a global, transnational project, and that it depends on the movement of workers and ideas across borders. He argues that policy in both China and India has increasingly favored the increasing circulation of students and workers to a from the United States, as both countries have concluded that such circulation improves the health of their national innovation systems. He also argues that policy in the United States has largely been driven by domestic concerns, with different interest groups arguing for tight or lax regulations on students and workers for largely economic reasons.

Domestic political considerations drive much of the decision-making in the Trump administration. Both the Biden and Trump campaigns seem to have made hostility toward China a key aspect of their foreign policy platforms, albeit to different degrees. And in this case, much of the logic for cutting the pipeline is domestic, even though it manifests in non-economic logic. The industries which disproportionately employ Chinese students and workers are concentrated in high technology, a sector which leans left, and in states like California that do not support Trump electorally. The Trump administration has an ideological distaste for the U.S. system of higher education, which it believes is hostile to the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally. Thus, it does not view visa restrictions that hurt the higher education industry in negative terms. Finally, it is increasingly difficult to deny that a degree of racial animus motivates the Trump administration decision-making with respect to China, and to other non-white countries.

The Trump administration has also offered a national security justification. Another executive order is expected to ban Chinese students with any connection to Chinese universities associated with the PLA. This resonates with other aspects of the administration’s immigration policy. In particular, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, has made the case for much tighter regulation of Chinese students studying in the United States, arguing that these students develop expertise in the U.S. and then take that human capital back to China. The evidence suggests otherwise; Chinese students in technical fields in the United States tend to stay in the U.S. after completing their degrees.

Undoubtedly, Chinese students in the United States sometime steal trade secrets and other intellectual property and take that back to China. They also develop expertise, or human capital, that improves the health of China’s national innovation system. But a great many Chinese students remain in the United States, much like Indian students. The calculus remains the same as it was two years ago; tightening or completely foreclosing study and work opportunities for Chinese students in the United States will hurt both countries, but unevenly. In the United States it will devastate industries that President Trump dislikes, while also undermining the health of the U.S. national innovation system. It will also inflict damage on other U.S. high technology industries. Domestic considerations do indeed drive decision-making in the Trump administration.