Maybe “some are rapists,” in Donald Trump’s nasty words. But many are geniuses. Just ask the MacArthur Foundation, which responded to our president’s frequent demonization of immigrants, including that infamous phrase, by doing a little math.
Every year since 1981, the foundation has bestowed so-called genius grants on more than 20 of the country’s most accomplished and promising scientists, scholars, artists and writers. These awards are a huge deal, trumpeted in the media and worn with pride forevermore. And the winners, typically in the middle of their careers, get $625,000 each.
Of the 965 geniuses (or, more properly, MacArthur fellows) to date, 209 were born outside the United States, according to Cecilia Conrad, who leads the fellowship program. That’s 21.7 percent. The 2010 census determined that less than 13 percent of the American population is foreign-born.
Conrad wondered whether MacArthur fellows are anomalies. They’re not. She looked back over the past three and a half decades — which is the life span of the fellowships — to see who’d received other top honors given only to United States citizens and residents.
She found that immigrants were overrepresented among the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for music, of the National Humanities Medal and especially of the John Bates Clark Medal, which recognizes brilliant American economists under the age of 40. Thirty-five percent of these economists were foreign-born, including people from India, Turkey and Ukraine.
The far-right paranoiacs and scaremongers who pressured Trump to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) hate to acknowledge what we reality-moored types understand: Many of our country’s finest minds and brightest ideas are forged when dreamers from elsewhere encounter an unfamiliar place with unimagined possibilities. There’s a creative spark in that convergence. It has powered American greatness.
That’s the moral of the MacArthur Foundation’s math, which it shared first with The Times. That’s also the moral of the Nobel Prizes. According to an analysis late last year by Adil Najam, a Boston University professor: “Since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Prizes and the Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded 579 times to 911 people and organizations. The U.S. alone has had more than 350 Nobel winners. More than 100 of these have been immigrants and individuals born outside of the United States.” If immigrants to the United States were considered their own country, Najam wrote, their tally of Nobels would exceed that of every country but the United States.
And Jennifer Hunt, a professor of economics at Rutgers University, has done research showing that among graduates of American colleges, immigrants are twice as likely to receive patents as native-born Americans. Her research further suggests that this doesn’t come at the expense of native-born Americans but in fact stimulates their innovation, too. “You’re bouncing ideas off each other,” Hunt told me.
Her findings speak to the oft-charted success of American immigrants in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. The MacArthur grants cover the humanities, too; the past decade’s winners include such celebrated writers as Junot Díaz, born in the Dominican Republic; Edwidge Danticat, born in Haiti; and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of “Americanah,” born in Nigeria.