The next time you're driving from New York to Boston on I-95, you should make a little detour in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to visit the Old Slater Mill national historic landmark. It's the site of what is considered to be the first successful water-powered textile spinning mill in America. That feat was made possible by Samuel Slater, an immigrant to the US who came here at the age of 21 in 1789 from England — a country with which we had just fought a long, bitter war. He had the mill going only a few years after the signing of the US Constitution, and is sometimes referred to as the "Father of the American Industrial Revolution."
The textile industry became a huge deal in 19th century America, kind of like the tech industry is today. And that immigrant tradition continues, especially in tech, America's most dominant and dynamic industry today. In fact, if you were drawing up a business plan for countries back in 1789, you couldn't have done better than the American founders did by, among other things, welcoming the most ambitious people from around the world to build lives here as full participants in the American experiment.
For me, it is this long, deeply ingrained tradition of American immigration — and the huge benefits it has paid to our country — that makes President Trump's executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries deeply worrisome. Yes, I understand it is supposedly meant to buy time to develop a better system to block terrorists from entering our nation. Yes, I understand that our government has clamped down on immigration from time to time in the past, sometimes shamefully excluding specific peoples, like the Chinese.
But the Trump action carries with it the unmistakable scent of nativism, the idea that immigration is a bad idea. And that is just un-American, and bad for innovation to boot.
That isn't to say that refugees fleeing horrors in Syria or elsewhere and seeking asylum must be computer programmers or biochemists to be admitted. We should admit as many as we can, after proper vetting, simply because they are refugees. That's reason enough. It will forever be a stain on our history that we turned away some Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.
The same goes for average immigrants who aren't refugees, but are simply seeking economic opportunity. Not all are Samuel Slaters. Like native-born Americans, only a few will change the world. But you never know which foreign-born barista putting herself through school might one day build a great business or invent a great product. Just by pulling up roots in another country and coming here, she's already shown grit, ambition, and a strong work ethic.