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The Terrorist Legacy

Conventional wisdom says that the terrorists were beaten back after 9/11 and ultimately lost their bid to disrupt or terrorize the United States. But a recent column in The Economist magazine suggests that the terrorists may have won more than we realize. In addition to the hassle of removing your shoes, coat, gloves, hat, jacket, wallet, keys and belt at the security line at the airport, you also may be losing prosperity.

How? The magazine notes that in 2001, before the attack, 28% of all students who studied abroad did so at American universities. By 2008, that figure had shrunk to 21%. Foreigners and immigrants make up more than half of the scientific researchers in the U.S., and typically 60% of the post-doctoral students doing top-level research are foreign-born. But lately, the ordeal of getting a visa is prompting many of those brainiacs to take their ideas elsewhere. The article also says that organizers of international scientific conferences are increasingly reluctant to hold them in America, because it takes so long for the immigration service to approve short-term visas. An unrelated survey commissioned by the global travel industry found that the entry process into the U.S. was rated the most rude, unpleasant and intrusive.

The article offers one more thing to think about. A study by researchers at UCLA modeled the economic impact if immigration laws were made more welcoming. This is not likely, it said, because immigration officials live in fear of admitting the next Mohammad Atta, but there is no penalty for excluding the next Einstein. The researchers assumed that Congress would create an immigration policy that would make it possible for some 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country to earn legal status and eventually citizenship–and pay taxes. And, second, they assumed the rigid cap on the number of visas issued to foreign citizens would be replaced by one that takes into account what the American labor market needs.

These two changes, the study estimated, would raise America's gross domestic product by $1.5 trillion over ten years–and that, the article suggests, ought to be counted as the price exacted by the terrorists. It says that the current immigration system, a result of policy changes in the wake of 9/11, is a recipe for stagnation, and poses a serious threat to America's status as the top nation of the world–which may have been the goal of the terrorists all along.