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How Immigrants Changed the Geography of Innovation

A new report shows how immigrants fueled regional inventiveness, bolstered creative momentum within their industries, and drove long-term technological growth.
A patent application for "the multiple telegraph" by Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell.
A patent application for "the multiple telegraph" by Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell. Library of Congress

President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders crack down on illegal immigration as promised. But his immigration and refugee ban, leaked draft orders, and the language of his top aides all suggest that he’s looking to go further, restricting the legal immigration of “high-skilled” workers as well. If these efforts succeed, it’s possible that America’s ability to innovate will take a hit, compromising the country’s technological edge and economic growth.

History provides some support for that argument. In a new working paper, University of Chicago economists Ufuk Akcigit and John Grigsby and Harvard economist Tom Nicholas examined the role that immigrants play in innovation. By matching U.S. patent data to local Census data between 1880 and 1940—what they call the “golden age of innovation”—they were able to quantify the significant contributions of immigrants to American technological progress. Broadly, they found that immigrants fueled regional inventiveness, bolstered creative momentum within their industries, and drove long-term technological growth.