Competition with China is dominating America’s foreign policy discourse in a way reminiscent of Cold War hysteria. Our politics haven’t descended into McCarthyite crusades to purge federal departments of alleged communist infiltrators, but there are already examples of making policy out of paranoia.

In addition to fueling wasteful defense spending, fear of China has led policymakers to push for cuts to Chinese immigration. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) believes dramatically reducing immigration from China is necessary to protect against Chinese spies stealing American secrets. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) went so far as to block a bill allowing for Hong Kongers to get work permits and become refugees because he’s afraid of spies. President Biden has maintained the anti-Chinese immigration policies adopted by the Trump administration.

To the extent that China poses a serious threat to the United States, policymakers should be clamoring to liberalize immigration with China rather than restrict it. At the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, American politicians ignored the Know-Nothings of their time and encouraged refugees from communist countries.

Starting with President Truman, who ordered the admission of 80,000 refugees from Soviet-occupied Poland, the Baltic countries, and from areas of Southern Europe where communist insurgencies were active in 1945, and ending with the Lautenberg Amendment of 1990, the U.S. government consistently liberalized refugee and asylum policy for those fleeing communism. They let in millions of refugees and asylum seekers from countries as varied as Hungary, China, Greece, the Soviet Union, and Cuba – the birthplace of Senator Cruz’s father.

Welcoming immigrants from communist countries produced important economic, political, moral, and propaganda victories during the Cold War that showcased the superiority of individual liberty and capitalism over communism. But modern policy makers are ignoring those victories today.

U.S. policymakers are worried about Chinese technology. One obvious response is to channel the most productive and educated Chinese citizens to our shores. Why don’t today’s policymakers learn from the past and liberalize Chinese immigration? Espionage is the main excuse, but immigration restrictions would do little to mitigate this threat and would produce negative unintended consequences down the road for America’s competition with China.

From 1990 to 2019, there were 1,485 people convicted of espionage or espionage-related crimes spying on U.S. soil. Of those, 184 were from China. Chinese-born spies stole economic secrets or intellectual property from private firms two-thirds of the time. Of the 46 firms that were the victims of economic espionage committed by Chinese spies on U.S. soil, 16 were the victims more than once – meaning that they decided that their expected espionage-related costs of hiring Chinese workers were lower than the benefits of hiring them.

Rarely were the stolen secrets related to national security. Chinese immigrant Xiaorong You was indicted for stealing a formula for a coating for the inside of Coke cans. Last year, Xin Wang, a Chinese-born visiting researcher at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) was arrested for the espionage-related crime of visa fraud because he did not inform U.S. immigration officials that he was still a medical technician in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said that Wang’s case “is another part of the Chinese Communist Party’s plan to take advantage of our open society and exploit academic institutions.” At UCSF, Wang was researching obesity and metabolism, not weapons.

Some instances of espionage are serious, but many don’t have a connection to Chinese immigrants. American-born John Reece Roth, for instance, exported data on specialized plasma technology for use in drones that he had developed under a U.S. Air Force contract. We shouldn’t let the occasional case of Chinese espionage blind the government to the benefits of liberalizing immigration for those fleeing Communist China.

In contrast, Chinese immigrants are making huge contributions to research and development that will unlock economic and technological innovation going forward. In all STEM fields, there are around 46,000 Chinese undergraduates, about 41,000 master’s students, and an estimated 36,000 PhD students at U.S. universities. Immigration restrictions to deal with the manageable threat of espionage guarantees that many of them will return to China and that fewer will come in the future.

The federal government should use the Cold War immigration playbook to liberalize immigration with China. Congress should update the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, which liberalized trade with non-market economies if they allowed emigration. That would end the Trump-era trade restrictions on China in exchange for the Chinese allowing the free emigration of Uighurs, other persecuted ethnic and religious minorities like Christians and Tibetans, and Hong Kongers. For the long term, expanded asylum options, green cards for all Chinese graduates of American universities, and allowing all educated Chinese immigrants to come here without restriction should all be on the table.

Liberalizing immigration with China is a net benefit for the United States and may even give America an edge in its competition with Beijing. Moreover, providing a safe haven for those fleeing totalitarian communism in China will be a tremendous moral victory for the United States.

Americans understood this during the Cold War. It’s time their children applied that lesson today.

Commentary by Alex Nowrasteh and John Glaser. Originally published at Cato At Liberty.

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