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AAAS and Scientific Community Push Back Against Restrictive Immigration Policies

Marica and Jan Vilcek came to the U.S. as refugees from Czechoslovakia in 1965. Today their foundation raises awareness of immigrant contributions. | Jan and Marica Vilcek/The Vilcek Foundation

Since White House actions seeking to curtail immigration began to target foreign nationals within the research community, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has been at the forefront of efforts by scientific societies, universities and prominent scientists to uphold the importance of maintaining an open and international scientific enterprise.

One result of that struggle came in mid-July, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to rescind a rule change that would have revoked F-1 and M-1 visas for international students currently studying at universities that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, have decided to hold all classes online this fall. However, while visas that have already been issued will not be revoked, ICE was given the authority to prevent new international students from receiving visas for fully online coursework, and a number of other restrictive policies will remain in place, including a presidential directive barring people holding four types of non-immigrant work visas from entering the country.

“While there are real reasons to protect the U.S. research enterprise, we cannot close our borders to such an extent that we don’t trust any international scientists, because that would be to our detriment,” said Joanne Carney, director for government relations at AAAS. “We cannot forget that major scientific discoveries have come from scientists from all over the world, to the benefit of the U.S.”

In February, the AAAS Office of Government Relations and the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy launched Science Beyond Borders, an initiative to collect scientists’ stories of international collaboration in order to garner support for immigrant scientists in conversations among government leaders. A town hall at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting featured a conversation between representatives of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and federal agencies working to protect American research from espionage, and university leaders seeking to ensure that policies are not excessively restrictive.

Dr. Jan Vilcek, a research professor at the New York University School of Medicine who supports Science Beyond Borders through his foundation, has been another active voice in the pushback against the July 6 ICE rule regarding international students and the June 22 directive restricting certain work visas, which many foreign researchers working in U.S. labs rely on. Brian Brown and Miriam Merad, biomedical scientists at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, recently authored an open letter — signed by Vilcek and more than 3,000 other researchers — warning that such policies “could irreparably alter America’s standing in science.”

“In the long-run, and even in the short-run, this will be detrimental,” said Vilcek, himself an immigrant from Czechoslovakia. “Some damage has already been done, because now people who were born in other countries and would have wanted to come here feel that they are not welcome.”

The logic used to support restrictive policies — to protect jobs for American workers — is misguided, Vilcek added. Data support the idea that, rather than taking jobs from native-born Americans, foreign-born researchers meet a need for highly skilled workers and benefit the country as a whole.

While 18% of the U.S. population is foreign-born, immigrants account for 30% of the country’s scientists and engineers, according to the National Science Foundation. Immigrants are also essential to the health care sector, which includes 1.5 million foreign-born doctors, nurses and pharmacists, a recent Migration Policy Institute report showed. Of the 95 Nobel Prizes won by Americans in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine since 2000, 36 were awarded to immigrants.

AAAS has long voiced objections to policies hostile to foreign-born students and workers. When Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the federal government claiming that the ICE rule was unlawful, AAAS signed an amicus brief led by the American Physical Society in support of the universities’ objections.

“More than half of the Ph.D. students in science fields in the United States are international students, largely on F-1 visas,” the statement read. “These students enrich the U.S. economy, becoming part of diverse American society, and contribute greatly to the country’s pre-eminence in science and technology.”

AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh, whose parents emigrated from Mumbai to Hickory, North Carolina,  has repeatedly spoken out as well, making statements voicing official AAAS stances and editorials highlighting his personal story.

“My parents worked in furniture factories and textile mills to put us though college and ensure we had opportunities. Today, my sister works at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and I have the privilege of leading the American Association for the Advancement of Science,” Parikh wrote in a July 10 Science editorial. “We exist because of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and our parents’ belief in the vision of the United States as a shining city on a hill. My family’s story is repeated by thousands of American scientists.”