In a 5-4, closely watched decision, the US Supreme Court sided with President Donald Trump’s administration and allowed the third version of the Executive Order on Immigration, also known as the travel ban, to go into effect. Regardless of the legal and political ramifications, there will be a considerable human cost, and the scientific community should be proactive to minimize its effect on the students and scholars subject to this policy.
Tens of thousands of students from countries affected by the travel ban, with already limited access to their parents, relatives, and friends, will be further thrown into uncertainty and isolation. They will need immense support from their communities to stay sane and carry on. I know this, because until not too long ago, I was one of these students.
I first entered the United States in 2006 to join the Molecular Biology graduate program at Princeton University. After months of administrative processing, I was issued a single-entry visa valid for only three months because of my nationality (I am Iranian). This meant that while I could legally stay within the borders during my studies, I needed to re-apply for a new visa every time I left the U.S. In practice, for the vast majority of Iranian graduate students in STEM who are tied to their benches, going back home was never an option.
By and large, the same processing restrictions also limited the ability of our parents and relatives to travel to the U.S. to visit us. Now, with the travel ban going into effect, even these occasional visits from parents will disappear. The de facto consequence of this policy is years of forced isolation for these students and scholars that they never signed up for.
When we accepted these students into our graduate programs, we made them a promise that while they may be away from home, this country will be their new home; that the U.S. values diversity in thought and culture; that they will be trained, educated, and cared for.
When I was 20 years old, I felt invincible. I was ready to make sacrifices without fully understanding the depth of their consequences. I saw friends decide to go to schools in countries other than the U.S. just so that they could visit home often. But from my perspective, they were weak; they were not committed enough. In my view, a graduate degree from a top-notch school is worth the five years of separation. But soon I realized I had grossly underestimated how much I relied on the emotional support from family and friends. With every birthday celebrated without them, with every wedding I missed, and with every death in the family, I felt more and more isolated. This is not my story alone. This is the story of many thousands of students from these “high-risk” countries who have left their homes in pursuit of a better education.
The travel ban closes the border to a large body of highly talented students. The number of student visas issued in the past year was already plummeting even before this ban. The untoward effects of this policy for future generations of scientists and scholars will be swift; fewer and fewer graduate students from these countries (or even other countries for that matter) will choose to attend our universities. This will land a hard blow to the recruitment of international students in an increasingly competitive environment. However, of special concern here are the thousands of students who are already enrolled in programs across the U.S. and now have lost any possibility of seeing their parents and relatives for years to come. Numerous students, postdocs, and faculty will be under increasing pressure in the upcoming months to take stock of how this policy will impact their lives and careers. Some may even choose to forgo their current positions in the U.S. and seek opportunities elsewhere. I do not have a clear roadmap as to how we can best minimize the profoundly negative impact of the travel ban. But we should start with identifying those in our communities who are most affected and we should ensure that they have the support they need to overcome this hurdle and to prosper in our institutions.
This will require efforts on multiple fronts, ranging from institutional support groups and mental health initiatives to career development and counseling. We should be cognizant of how much these students sacrifice to be part of our community and we should devote more attention to their advancement. We need to ensure that time-to-graduation for these students falls within an acceptable range. Without these steps, we risk losing them even prior to completing their requirements for graduation and stifling many promising careers in science and technology.
As scientists, scholars, and educators, we are responsible for the physical and mental health of our students and trainees. When we accepted these students into our graduate programs, we made them a promise that while they may be away from home, this country will be their new home; that the U.S. values diversity in thought and culture; that they will be trained, educated, and cared for.
That promise, which was broken last year by the chaotic implementation of the first Executive Order, is now completely shattered by the addition of five signatures from the conservative justices on the Supreme Court. While siding with the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “An anxious world must know that our Government remains committed always to the liberties the Constitution seeks to preserve and protect, so that freedom extends outward, and lasts.” In the clear absence of this commitment by the US government, and with the courts having vacated this responsibility, it is on us the citizenry to step up to the plate and preserve and protect the spirit of this promise.