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Science Careers Blog

October 17, 2012

Fact-Checking Obama on Immigrant Entrepreneurs

People will probably remember the second Presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, held on 18 October, mostly for moderator Candy Crowley's dramatic correction of a statement by Romney and for Romney's odd image or "binders full of women."  But buried in the wrangling over tax plans, health care, and the security of U.S. diplomatic installations was a brief mention by the President of an issue much closer to Science Career's heart, the contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs.

This also appears to be an issue close to President Obama's heart.  As we've previously reported, he has spoken of it before.  And, as he has done in the past, he once again used inaccurate and misleading examples to illustrate immigrants' role in the nation's innovation and economic vitality. 

"Look," the President said during the debate, "when we think about immigration, we have to understand there are folks all around the world who still see America as the land of promise.  And they provide us energy, and they provide us innovation." Thus far the statement is entirely true.  "And," he continued, " they start companies like Intel and Google, and we want to encourage that."  Here he departs from accuracy.

According to the Intel Corporation, its founders were Robert Noyce, a native of Burlington, Iowa, and Gordon Moore, a Mayflower descendent born in San Francisco.  Andrew Grove, who gained fame as a highly successful Intel CEO,  came to the U.S. as a 20-year-old refugee from the 1956 Hungarian revolt and earned degrees from the City University of New York and the University of California, Berkeley.  He was not a founder but one of the company's first employees. 

Google's founders are Larry Page, born in East Lansing, Michigan, and Sergei Brin, who was brought to the United States from his native Soviet Union by his parents at the age of 6.  Brin attended American public schools, the University of Maryland, and Stanford University.  So, though indubitably foreign born, presumably no one was thinking of him, at 6 years old, as an engine of economic growth. And, like Grove, he was educated in the United States.

This bit of fact-checking isn't meant to denigrate in any way the many foreign-born technological innovators who have participated in building successful American companies (including, as I've mentioned on another occasion, my own father).  It's just a matter of making sure that discussion of a complex issue proceeds on the basis of facts rather than of oft-repeated errors.

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