When White House officials bullied Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman into retirement this month the damage surpassed the ruination of a patriotic officer’s career.
Vindman is the decorated Iraq war veteran and Ukraine expert on the National Security Council who drew President Donald Trump’s wrath for his honest testimony under oath at the impeachment hearings.
He is also an immigrant, brought here by his parents as a child from the Soviet Union. At the hearings he spoke eloquently of his gratitude to his adopted country: “As a young man, I decided I wanted to spend my life serving the nation that gave my family refuge from authoritarian repression.”
Despite shameful persecution by the White House, Vindman stands as an exemplar of the invaluable benefits legal immigration has brought to this country. So do two other impeachment witnesses with immigrant backgrounds, who spoke of their gratitude to this country at the hearing: former NSC Russia expert Fiona Hill, who emigrated from northern England, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whose parents fled Soviet communism and the Nazis.
Yet, astonishingly, in the Trump era, we need to constantly restate the value of legal immigration, a premise central to the American narrative for most of our history. Even as Vindman was being forced out, the Trump administration was intensifying its campaign to slash legal immigration and deprive this country of the unique benefits it brings.
So let us revisit the benefits of legal immigration. Let’s start with the moral benefits. As Fiona Hill told me, in a phone conversation: “Vindman wanted to serve his country. There were a lot of naturalized citizens on the National Security Council with me, from Taiwan, Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Ukraine, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the Balkans, people who wanted to give back to the country that gave them so much.
“Why is the administration going after patriotic Americans like Vindman and Yovanovitch? Where is the sense of larger purpose? These are the people we need in our country.”
Indeed, it is immigrants, especially those who left authoritarian countries, who appreciate the value of democracy to an extent many native-born Americans often don’t.
What then about economic issues, especially at a time of pandemic?
Long before COVID-19, the administration had slashed legal refugee admissions to 18,000 for the current fiscal year, down from 110,000 called for by President Barack Obama — and had also choked off legal asylum-seekers.
But now the White House is using the virus as an excuse to keep out the world’s top scientific and engineering talent, suspending H-1B visas used by foreign engineers and scientists who help the United States keep its edge in cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).
“What distinguishes Trump from previous Republicans,” I was told by Edward Alden, a top immigration expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, “is that the latter worried about illegal immigration, but believed legal migration was one of America’s great strengths, because it brings to us a lion’s share of the world’s best, brightest, and most ambitious.
“This is killing the goose that laid the golden egg. If we don’t change direction as a country, this will harm us for many years to come. It is simply a self-inflicted wound.”
Of course, the administration claims its aim, in suspending H-1B visas (around 85,000 yearly) is to ensure that new jobs will go to Americans when the economy rebounds.
Not so, says Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “This will have a very limited impact on the economy,” Selee told me, because these jobs are very particular. “A lot of these visa holders come to take specific jobs at universities and tech firms. Everyone wants to compete for these people because they are the top talent for the entire innovation economy. These people are in demand around the world.”
Yet the president wants to keep this global talent pool out of the country, which will undermine America’s ability to compete with China. He would also like to keep out foreign students (though the White House backed off on this one) and foreign researchers in top scientific fields.
Of course, there is room to adjust visa programs for foreign workers to ensure they are not replacing more routine jobs. And to make certain that foreign workers from China are properly vetted if they are considered for sensitive jobs.
But what we should be having is a national, bipartisan, real discussion on immigration and how it fits into American values and the American economy — especially the innovation economy. Instead, we get helter-skelter orders on visas and foreign students that are aimed at Trump’s political base. They have no rational framework, no long-term plan to keep America competitive.
We get a White House using the cover of COVID-19 to cut legal immigration by fiat in ways it could never get through Congress.