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Trump throws international science immigration into turmoil

Temporary ban on H-1B and other visas will affect thousands of scientists from industry and academia

by Andrea Widener
June 23, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 25


Photo of Donald Trump speaking at a podium with a crowd of people behind him.
Credit: KYLE RIVAS/UPI/Newscom
At a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20, President Donald J. Trump called for “a fair, safe, sane, and lawful system of immigration that puts American workers first.”

International scientists seeking to work in the United States were thrown into limbo June 22 when the Donald J. Trump administration issued a ban on H-1B and other temporary visas.

The ban, which will be in effect through at least Dec. 31, applies to thousands of international scientists who want to work in the US. It does not affect people who are already in the country.

The administration said it considers the ban a way to protect US jobs at a time when millions of US workers are unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But scientists say that stopping the flow of international researchers to the US could damage industry and academia, both immediately and in the long term.

International scientists have been “an incredible competitive differentiator for the US,” says Nina Kjellson, a partner at the venture capital firm Canaan. “It’s a travesty, especially at a time where the industry is really rising to meet the challenges of patient needs and societal needs, that we would be thinking about in any way curbing that talent.”

The largest immediate impact of the ban will be for those applying for an H-1B, a temporary visa for highly skilled workers in all sectors. Trump also banned J-1 “exchange visitor” visas, but research scholars such as postdocs were exempted. The ban did not include F-1 visas regularly used by students.

Short-sighted bans and changes to H-1B visas will have a dramatic and negative impact on our ecosystem.
Bruce Booth, partner, Atlas Venture

Biotech companies commonly use H-1B visas to bring in both scientists and employees on the business side, says John Maraganore, CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. “On the science side, it’s been instrumental,” he says. “We must get the best people in the world to help us execute on our scientific goals,” he adds. Restrictions such as the immigration ban “are very concerning and can harm the ability of companies like Alnylam to ultimately invent the best drugs.””

Most companies are happy to hire US scientists first, says Abbie Celniker, a partner with Third Rock Ventures, but many work in specialized research areas. “We have to have the people who understand this specific area of science,” she says. “We can’t train them. These people train for 20 years sometimes to become that expert.”

Trump says he is trying to help curb unemployment with the visa ban, but ultimately the ban will hurt the biotech industry and the economy, Celniker says. “For us, this means hiring issues,” she says. “We’re one part of industry right now that’s doing well.”

Even immigrant scientists who are not affected by this particular order feel the pain. Feier Hou, a chemistry professor at Western Oregon University, already has her H-1B visa. But attacks on incoming visa holders make her worry that the same thing could happen to her. “It adds a lot of stress to people like myself living in the United States because it adds a lot of instability,” Hou says. “This just all around sends the signal that you are not welcome here.”

Hou also worries that the order will reinforce people’s anti-immigrant biases, which she experienced from her fellow students when she was in graduate school. Since she can’t vote, there’s not much she can do except speak up so her colleagues and friends know how she feels. “The people who are affected by it are not given a voice,” Hou says. “This is a really helpless situation.”

Kevan Shokat, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, held a listening session with his lab to talk about the ban. His international students and postdocs shared how it made them feel. Even though they are currently in the US, “It does affect them because they can’t go back and visit family,” he says. “I just can’t imagine being in my 20s and not seeing my family.”

Shokat’s father is an Iranian immigrant so the anti-immigrant sentiment from the administration—going back to Trump’s 2017 ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries—has felt very personal, he says. Throughout his career, “having a diverse international lab has been just so special,” Shokat says. “People want to do science, to make discoveries. It doesn’t matter what passport you have.”

The long-term impact of the ban will be on how international researchers view US science, says Denis Wirtz, a chemical engineer and vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins University. The university employs hundreds of scientists on H-1B visas. Wirtz considers it a vital way to recruit the very best scientists worldwide.

“If we open the door to immigrants and scholars, that only makes the university system stronger,” he says. But other countries like Canada, Australia, and many in Europe are starting to recognize the importance of immigrants and are opening up their borders at the same time the US is cutting new immigrants out. “You are crippling yourself at a time when international competition has never been so tough.”

Wirtz worries that damage could be permanent—that the US will develop a reputation for an unstable immigration system, and that image will be hard to undo. “It takes the very brightest to develop the most important technologies,” he says. “These people are irreplaceable.”

Bernat Olle, CEO of Vedanta Biosciences, says whether the damage is permanent will depend on whether Trump is reelected in November. Much of Trump’s rhetoric has been around illegal immigration, but now Trump is cutting off the legal path says Olle, who is himself an immigrant from Catalonia. Recruiting highly-talented scientists into the tech and biotech fields should be uncontroversial, he says. “We should want as many that we can get.”

Some damage will have already been done among scientists who are currently deciding whether to start their lives and careers in the US or elsewhere, Olle says. But he’s “very optimistic that, come November, we’re going to wipe this clean and bring things back to normal.”

The ban did not include a rumored cancellation of Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows students to work in the US for up to 3 years after they complete their degree. Researchers have said that time is vital for scientists who want to gain work experience and make connections in the industry. “It was certainly a temporary relief that OPT was not included in the proclamation. However, we should not take that to mean there will not be action on it in the future,” says Craig Lindwarm, vice president for governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

In announcing the visa ban, the White House said that it is also working to revamp the H-1B visa process. Currently, demand for H-1B visas by companies far outstrips supply—the US limits such visas to 85,000 annually, and they are awarded through a lottery. Instead of the lottery system, the White House wants to “prioritize those workers who are offered the highest wage,” according to a press release. Academic institutions are currently exempt from the limit.

Basing immigration on salary is both “unjust and illogical,” says Ginkgo Bioworks CEO Jason Kelly “Immigrants contribute to our economy at all levels of training and expertise. Allowing only the most senior immigrants to obtain work visas means that less senior immigrants will build their careers and create innovations in other places,” says Kelly, whose company’s founders included one immigrant and two children of immigrants. “The salary associated with a visa application is not an indicator of the contributions an immigrant would make to our economy or society.”

At the moment, embassies are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic so no visas are being processed, a problem that has stranded many international graduate students and postdocs abroad.

Immigration lawyer Brian Getson encourages scientists to stay positive even after this setback. Scientists can apply for an exception to the H-1B ban or try for an O-1A visa, which is for people of “extraordinary ability.”

“People have to keep fighting,” he says. “This is not going to last forever. It’s an inconvenience right now.”

This story was revised on June 25, 2020, to incorporate additional reactions to the ban.

This story was corrected on June 25, 2020, to reflect the fact that Feier Hou experienced anti-immigrant bias from fellow students when she was in graduate school, not undergraduate students she has taught.

On June 25, 2020, the story was revised to correct Denis Wirtz's title. Wirtz is vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins University, not vice president for research.

On June 25, 2020, the story was amended to fix the name of the CEO of Vedanta Biosciences. He is Bernat Olle, not Olle Bernat.



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