By Jim Doyle

If you don’t think Joe Biden’s decision to reverse Donald Trump’s “Muslim travel ban” was a big deal, you should talk to the American business owners who bore its cost these past four years.

Days after becoming president, Trump closed our borders to citizens of several countries because, according to Trump, “Islam hates us.” When a federal court invalidated the ban, Trump’s lawyers began a two-year process of reducing the ban’s scope and tone to pass judicial muster. In 2018, a watered-down ban finally survived judicial review. This version covered just a few countries and no longer explicitly targeted Muslim ones. I was not surprised to hear colleagues wonder aloud if criticism of the ban was overblown. Some were tempted to dismiss it as another prop in Trump’s political theater. Unfortunately, the fact that Trump mismanaged this poor excuse for immigration policy didn’t make it any less expensive for American businesses. 

Throughout the Trump Administration, Business Forward organized hundreds of briefings with local business leaders, and the Muslim ban came up often. While business leaders recognized the ban’s moral dimension, their top priority is jobs, investment and America’s competitive advantage. Where Trump wrongly saw a security threat, business leaders see fellow business leaders, customers, suppliers and employees. Each of these were diminished by Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric that surrounded the ban and beyond. Five million Americans are practicing Muslims, and millions of other Americans are from the countries he denigrated. 

Business leaders are years ahead of Washington on race and diversity. Chances are, work is the most diverse part of your day. Business owners understand inclusive businesses attract more customers and better workers. They also understand that inclusive communities attract more new jobs and investment. 

Business leaders at our briefings on this topic pointed out four other facts Trump and those who supported the ban missed. 

First, tourism is a big industry in the U.S. Second, Muslims represent one in four of the world’s customers. Third, if Muslims do not feel welcomed and safe here, they will do business somewhere else. And finally, when Trump blacklisted Muslims, called Mexicans “rapists,” and insulted Africans from “shithole” countries, everyone else began thinking twice about doing business here, too.

International tourism is America’s second-largest export. Foreign tourists contributed $256 billion to our economy in 2018. Moreover, it’s one of our most job-intensive sectors. Each million dollars in tourism exports support about three times more jobs than the average export.

Eighty percent of travel to the U.S. is for pleasure, not work. Travelers who do not feel safe or welcome in the U.S. can easily go elsewhere. When Trump called Mexicans “rapists,” affluent Mexicans switched their ski vacations from Vail to Vancouver. Prior to COVID-19, the global tourism industry boomed, but travel to the U.S. grew at half the global rate. In other words, public opinion about Trump and the U.S. caused our share of global tourism to shrink. Had the U.S. maintained the market share it enjoyed in 2015, our businesses would have enjoyed 14 million more visits and $59 billion in additional income in 2018. This additional business would have supported 120,000 U.S. jobs.

Trump’s rhetoric and immigration policies also hurt foreign enrollment at America’s colleges and universities, another major U.S. export at about $40 billion per year. You might think fewer students from around the world would mean more opportunity for local kids, but international students pay two to three times more tuition than in-state students. For years, U.S. college enrollment has been falling, and international students have been filling otherwise empty seats. If trends continue, in-state tuition will rise even faster, and as many as 450,000 U.S. jobs in college towns could disappear.

The Muslim ban and other Trump policies hurt foreign investment in the U.S., which fell from $380 billion in 2016 to $195 billion in 2019. During that same period, our trade deficit grew by $87 billion. This “Trump slump” was particularly bad for America’s advanced industries, which are responsible for 60% of U.S. exports. Those industries support one in four U.S. jobs. Because more than half of their jobs do not require a college degree, they are also a major driver of economic opportunity.

In the end, federal courts pruned Trump’s ban and Biden has now tossed it, but America’s global customers got Trump’s message and found new places to travel, trade and invest. We must measure, share and remember this larger cost. While we’re at it, we should recognize the valuable perspective business leaders bring to politically charged issues like this. Our politicians want a strong economy, but too many of them ignore how bad polarization is for our economy. When we need insights on how policies will play on Main Street, we should listen to business leaders who know what’s good for our bottom line while honoring American ideals.