Science Policy & Funding News

Immigration Ban Takes Toll on Earth and Space Scientists

Some researchers can't come to the United States or fear leaving the country to visit their home nations because of a new federal ban on immigrants.

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Solmaz Adeli was gearing up to attend this year’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Houston, Texas, and was looking forward to meeting new colleagues and learning about the latest in her field of planetary geology.

All that changed last Saturday. That’s when Adeli, an Iranian postdoctoral researcher at the German Aerospace Center’s Institute for Planetary Research in Berlin, received an email notifying her that a pending interview for her visa application to the United States had been cancelled. “I thought, ‘I am sleeping and having a nightmare,’” Adeli told Eos in an email.

The canceling of her interview resulted from an executive order, signed last Friday by President Donald Trump. The order implemented a 90-day ban on immigrants from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. The order also established a 120-day ban on refugees and a permanent ban on Syrian refugees. Media reports yesterday said that green card holders are exempt from the new ruling.

Blocked from this scientific meeting means “being cut off from all research presented,” Adeli said. She was planning to start a collaboration with a U.S.-based colleague, “which doesn’t seem feasible now.”

Uproar Across the World

The imposition of the ban caught more than 700 people en route to the United States when the order was signed, according to news outlets. Some travelers were prevented from boarding planes to the United States, whereas others were detained when their flights landed in the United States. Authorities detained many, including children and elderly people, for up to 20 hours at various airports across the country—many without access to legal counsel. Responses to the immigration ban quickly spread over the weekend, ranging from angry Tweets and Facebook posts to protests around the world.

In the United States, hundreds of protesters gathered at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Washington Dulles International Airport in Washington, D. C. In the following days, protesters also swarmed San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport, among others.

Protestors even took to the streets in the United Kingdom. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would open its doors to refugees and immigrants who were banned from the United States—on 30 January, the federal Immigration Minister granted temporary residence to “any traveler who is stranded in Canada as a result” of Trump’s immigration ban, according to The Globe and Mail.

Last Saturday, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed lawsuits on behalf of two people who had been detained at U.S. airports. The same day, a federal judge declared that those detained at U.S. airports could not be deported under the new ban. Lawyers also gathered at airports over the weekend, attempting to reach detainees.

Trapped and Worried

For some scientists like Adeli, the ban is creating obstacles to their careers.

“The U.S. plays an important role in planetary science,” said Adeli, who considers the LPSC an important career-building opportunity. “Since I entered the world of research, I have been in the U.S. at least once a year.”

Other foreign scientists living in the United States said they feel trapped. Ali Mehran, an Iranian atmospheric scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles, has resided in the United States since 2009, arriving on the day of former President Obama’s first inauguration. Mehran told Eos he has been able to visit his family only once, during the recent new year holiday. Although he recently acquired his green card, Mehran worries that he’ll be able to see his family back home only over Skype “for an unknown period” of time.

He also expressed concern that employers may avoid hiring him for fear that if he does choose to visit Iran, he might not be allowed back on U.S. soil.

Hassan Akbari, a postdoctoral space physicist at Boston University in Massachusetts, worries he may have to choose between his research and his family, which is back home in Iran, Akbari said in an email to Eos. Some of his colleagues are affected as well. “Many of them are considering moving out of the [United States] permanently, and as such their long term professional and academic goals will be affected or completely changed,” he added.

Importance of Diversity

“One of my PhD students is a dual citizen—United Kingdom and Iran—and this would limit her job options and her potential participation at [AGU’s Fall Meeting],” said Rich Pancost, an American geochemist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and director of the university’s Cabot Institute.

Earth scientists benefit enormously from cross-cultural perspectives, Pancost said. In an email to Eos, he wrote, “Science thrives when diverse cultures, experiences and world views interact. And this is particularly true for the geosciences, a discipline that is truly global in perspective.”

“I want to share perspectives with colleagues who grew up looking at Saharan sunsets or fishing in the Caspian Sea or subsistence farming in Somalia. I want to share perspectives with those who have experienced first-hand the aridification of their land, the pillaging of their forests, or the ravages of war on their soil. I want to share perspectives with those who grew up in cities and never saw an outcrop until their first field course,” he added.

He worries about “what we lose when [students] cannot attend” events like Fall Meeting or LPSC outside of their home countries. “We lose their knowledge, experiences, skills and perspectives and science suffers because of it.”

“The study of the Earth and space sciences has no borders,” said AGU Executive Director/CEO Christine McEntee in a statement released 30 January by the American Geophysical Union, publisher of Eos. “Changes in Earth’s systems in one region of the world often have impacts in another, and it is critical for scientists to be able to share data and collaborate unreservedly,” McEntee wrote.

Scientists Take Action

In another response to the ban, 12,000 scientists have signed a petition denouncing the order. As of yesterday, the list of signees included 40 Nobel Laureates and more than 7000 U.S. faculty members.

According to the petition, “the people whose status in the United States would be reconsidered under this [executive order] are our students, friends, colleagues, and members of our communities.” The order “is fatally disruptive to the lives of these immigrants, their families, and the communities of which they form an integral part. It is inhumane, ineffective, and un-American,” the petition’s creators wrote.

“I had the option to study and work in Japan and Canada, but I preferred the U.S. because of its unique values,” Mehran said. “Now I see those values [so] far away that I cannot reach out.”

—JoAnna Wendel (@JoAnnaScience), Staff Writer

Correction, 27 February 2017: An earlier version of this article stated an incorrect location for a researcher’s institute. The article now provides the correct city name.

Citation: Wendel, J. (2017), Immigration ban takes toll on Earth and space scientists, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO067173. Published on 31 January 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • m2cts

    We now live in a demagocracy where the crassest manipulator won. Arguments hold no sway. But there’s still power in resistance.