Geoscience graduate student Makan Karegar came to the United States in 2012 to pursue his doctorate after receiving a master’s degree from the Khajeh Nasir Toosi University of Technology in Tehran, Iran. He began studying at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, researching coastal subsidence, sea level rise, and flood hazards along the U.S. Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard. Five years later, Karegar has now completed his dissertation and stands ready to defend his Ph.D.
Except that he can’t. In June 2015, Karegar returned home to Iran to visit his family, but he was never allowed back into the United States. What was intended as a short visit during the middle of his graduate studies has turned into a 29-month ongoing battle with the U.S. Department of State to renew his student visa, reenter the United States, and receive his Ph.D.
Karegar’s troubles with U.S. immigration and visa law are not an isolated case when Iranian scientists seek to study or work in the United States. Even before President Trump sought to bar individuals from Iran and other countries from entering the United States, troubles with U.S. travel policies had a dampening effect on the ability for some to conduct science.
Overseas trips for field research, academic conferences and workshops, or simply visiting home have frequently led to issues at U.S. customs, racial profiling at airports, and, in some cases, barred reentry into the country. Blocks of President Trump’s so-called travel bans don’t necessarily mean smooth sailing for Iranian scientists seeking entry or reentry into the United States—many still navigate huge obstacles not faced by scientists from other countries.
“The current situation is very unstable and brings a growing uncertainty to students and researchers who apply for any type of visa,” Karegar said.
Eos spoke with Karegar and two other Iranian geoscientists who are studying or working at U.S. universities. They described how the United States’ immigration policies toward Iran have stymied their scientific careers. Their stories highlight how people with high educational aspirations and committed desires to serve the international scientific community can be forced to put their goals on hold because of their nationality.
Travel Ban 3.0
On 24 September, President Trump issued a proclamation that sought to narrow or close entry pathways into the United States for citizens from specific countries deemed to be “known or potential terrorist safe haven[s].” These countries are Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.
The proclamation expanded upon two prior executive orders restricting foreign travel, one issued on 27 January and the other on 6 March. The orders, both titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” are colloquially called “Travel Bans 1.0 and 2.0.” The bans resulted in mass protests around the world and were blocked by federal judges in New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Maryland.
The September presidential proclamation, titled “Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats” and dubbed by some as Travel Ban 3.0, included a key departure from the prior two bans: Iranian nationals holding valid student or visitor exchange visas would still be allowed entry if they met enhanced screening and vetting requirements.
These enhanced requirements would have included additional documentation to prove an individual’s identity, disclosure of an individual’s criminal or suspected terrorist history by the government of Iran, and a national security and public safety risk assessment by the Department of Homeland Security of Iran itself. In addition to factoring in the country’s terror threat, the latter requirement weighs whether Iran would accept its nationals back should they be deported from the United States.
The block of Travel Ban 3.0, which stopped all travel restrictions except those for North Korea and Venezuela, was loosened on 13 November. Now, the United States can bar entry to nationals of the remaining listed countries—Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—who are not connected to the United States through family or documented work or study.
Road Blocks to Study
But there’s a catch: Although the pathway outlined in Traven Ban 3.0 for those holding valid documentation seems navigable on paper, in practice the world works differently, Karegar noted. For students from Iran, the current “visa screening and vetting system is already thorough and comprehensive,” he said.
Take Karegar’s story. Following the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the severing of U.S.-Iran diplomatic relations, no U.S. embassy or consulate has been reopened. Because of this, Karegar, like other Iranian students and scientists seeking to work in the United States, had to leave Iran to apply for his initial student visa in 2012.
The 2012 visa was approved; Karegar began working as a graduate student in August of that year under a 5-year legal resident document. Although his entry visa, a 2-year student visa that let him come and go as he wished from 2012 to 2014, had expired in summer 2014, Karegar explained that his legal resident documentation would have let him stay in the country until he received his Ph.D. The catch: he would have had to remain in the country for the duration and couldn’t go home.
Instead, Karegar chose to visit his family in Iran in 2015 and apply for a new student entry visa while there, with the hope that it would be quickly granted so he could return to his studies.
Once again, Karegar left Iran and traveled to Armenia to get his student entry visa reissued at the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan. After an extended waiting period, during which time Karegar remained in Iran and continued working on his USF research out of a library near his parent’s house in Tehran, his visa renewal application was rejected under section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a catch-all category of refusals that spans anything from issues with a passport photo to national security concerns.
So what happened? In this case, U.S. policy toward Iran had undergone a change—fresh nuclear sanctions—right at the time that Karegar was in Iran, leaving him stranded.
Science on Hold
Karegar also ran into an added complication while trying to submit a Geophysical Research Letters paper from Tehran. “I got an email from USF noting that for reasons related to [nuclear] sanctions against Iran, my access to the university account had to be disabled,” he said. The university would not allow its files to be accessed from Iran, so Karegar could not even log onto his university email.
So Karegar, eager to work on his research, headed to Germany in June 2016 for a second attempt at renewing his student visa through the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt.
In Germany, however, his problems continued. Although he could finally access his email and continue work on his research paper, he made no further progress in his attempts to get back stateside. Karegar’s visa application entered into a holding pattern of administrative processing—an indeterminate waiting period for additional screening by a consular officer. And this holding pattern continues to this day.
As a result, Karegar was unable to use a 2015 travel award to attend a workshop on subsidence, an award he earned prior to his visa troubles. He has also been unable to attend the past two AGU Fall Meetings to present his research and network with other geoscientists.
While he waits to return to the United States for his Ph.D. defense, Karegar continues to live in Germany. He currently works on groundwater hydrology research at the Institute of Geodesy and Geoinformation at the University of Bonn. It does not escape his notice that if only the visa renewal process were more streamlined and efficient, he could have earned his doctorate, been working in the United States, and contributed to U.S. scientific advancement.
“The existing system not only hurts individual scientists, but hurts America,” Karegar said.
Fluctuating Travel Policies Leave Scientists Uncertain
The Institute of International Education (IIE), which monitors foreign students studying in the United States and foreign scholars working at U.S. institutions, reported that 12,269 Iranian students studied at U.S. universities during the 2015–2016 academic year, more than from all other Travel Ban 3.0 countries combined. Last year’s enrollments were the highest in 29 years, according to IIE, but are still recovering from their sharp decline following the mass deportation of thousands of Iranian students after the 1979 hostage crisis caused the United States and Iran to sever relations. Before the embassy was seized, more than 51,000 Iranian students studied in the United States.
In addition to students, there are also Iranian academics working at colleges, universities, and research centers. Inside Higher Ed reported that more than 1,300 Iranian scholars were working at U.S. institutions in academic year 2013–2014, most of whom were on H-1B visas. According to Pew Research, 90% of H-1B visas issued in fiscal year 2011 were high-level science, technology, engineering, or mathematics jobs.
Although many Iranian scientists are in the country on valid visas, some scientists worry that what happened to Karegar could happen to them. Do they dare risk venturing outside the United States for research-related field work, conferences, or collaborations?
For some, the answer is no. “Traveling abroad for collaborative research needs long-term planning and arrangements,” said Iranian geoscientist Hamed Rostamkhani. “I’m afraid if I exit the country for a scientific meeting, I wouldn’t be able to get back with the same valid documentation.” Rostamkhani earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from universities in Tehran before coming to the United States to earn his Ph.D. in 2015. He is currently a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California (UC) in Irvine and researches coastal flood risk assessment.
Rostamkhani explained that because of a pending permanent U.S. residency request, he has valid travel documentation and likely would not be affected by Travel Ban 3.0 should it ever go into full effect. However, he admitted that because of “unreliable” visa and immigration policies, he skipped attending the spring European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2017 and did not attend workshops on natural hazards and flood risk modeling in Europe and Australia.
Rostamkhani is part of an interdisciplinary and international research group at UC Irvine that focuses on natural hazard risk mitigation, but he explained that given his uncertainty and distrust of U.S. immigration and travel policy, he’s opted out of traveling with the group to their international research sites. He also does not meet his Canadian and European collaborators outside of the United States.
“These are all missed opportunities for communication, building connections, and growth in [your] career,” Rostamkhani said. But he feels that he has no other option—he can’t risk getting stranded outside the United States.
Valid Documentation Does Not Always Protect
For one Iranian-Canadian dual citizen, being discriminated against by U.S. travel policy as an Iranian national is “part of the experience of being in the U.S.” This geoscientist, currently a postdoctoral scholar in surface water research who has worked at U.S. universities for 5 years, asked to remain anonymous because of the personal details in her story.
Her career path has only recently extended into the United States. She studied or worked in Iran, Canada, and Switzerland before she moved back to Canada to work in industry and obtain her Canadian citizenship. In 2012, she earned her first postdoctoral research position in the United States and started a second U.S. postdoc position last year.
She travels using her Canadian passport, but she believes that because her passport lists her nation of birth, she is racially profiled at U.S. airports and frequently subjected to enhanced security screening. She estimated that she has been pulled out of security screening lines 4 out of the last 10 times she has traveled through a U.S. airport. In contrast, the average traveler entering the United States in 2016 had just a 1 in 1,000 chance of being apprehended—temporary detainment that may or may not result in an arrest—at a U.S. port of entry, according to data reported by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
During her first postdoc, she recalled one instance when, on her way back from a 2-month trip to Kenya in 2013 researching the conditions of African drought, she was pulled out of line at the U.S. Customs port in John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. She said that the customs officials held her for hours in “the cold room” and even threatened to jail her overnight when she could not immediately produce the additional paperwork they requested.
“I kept thinking, ‘I want a lawyer,’ and ‘I am working here with official papers,’” she said. “I knew that they were looking at my place of birth, Iran, and then they wanted to give me a hard time so I don’t feel welcome.”
She explained that she is not personally affected at all by the travel bans but that the attempted executive orders “took a much heavier toll [than one would expect] on Iranians with green cards and those perusing green cards.” That’s because the first of the Trump administration’s travel bans, announced on 27 January and partially in effect for 13 days, also barred Iranian green card holders, lawful permanent residents, and dual citizens with one country of citizenship not banned by the executive order from entering the United States. Many visa applicants found their scheduled and long-awaited interviews at U.S. embassies or consulates abruptly canceled, both she and Rostamkhani said.
She expressed that the most important thing a country can do for the people they bring in is to make them feel that they belong. This feeling is not conveyed, she said, by U.S. travel policies toward Iranians. These policies “rob people of their sense of dignity,” she said.
She added that “it was never easy for Iranians even before the Trump administration and his travel ban. It is just that, now, his administration’s drastic attitude toward Iranians has made others notice.”
Looking Toward a Murky Future
Because of her dual citizenship, the Iranian-Canadian scholar told Eos that she has the freedom to return to Canada at any time and pursue her geoscience career in what she feels is a more welcoming culture. Exciting research opportunities, she said, keep her in the United States despite U.S. policy that treats her first as an Iranian and then as a scientist. She called the three travel bans “disheartening” but said that her pursuit of education and science was at the core of her journey from Iran to Canada to the United States and that these adverse circumstances make her more determined than ever to be a scientist.
Others do not have the safety net of returning to a country that is more welcoming—their choices are between attempting to start afresh in a different country or staying in the United States, restricting their travel, and, consequently, restricting their science. Rostamkhani said that many of his Iranian scientific colleagues have expressed to him their concerns about their futures in the United States. Some talk of leaving the United States for jobs in Europe, Canada, or Australia, he said.
Voluntarily restricting travel has effects beyond science. How will the researchers travel to their families if there is an emergency? How can their families visit them for momentous life events like marriage or childbirth? Or what if they just wanted to go home for the holidays?
“America has been at the forefront of discovery,” Karegar noted, “based in part on its openness to immigrants, visiting researchers, and foreign graduate students and postdocs. These discoveries have made America stronger.” But if these researchers can’t get to this country, let alone freely travel in and out to share ideas, the United States’ capacity for discovery gets diminished, he explained.
“In the long run, the new rules will make America weaker,” Karegar said.
—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), News Writing and Production Intern
Correction, 28 November 2017: A past affiliation of one of the scientists has been fixed.