As immigrant scientists advance lifesaving research, lawmakers must protect them

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On June 22, President Donald Trump’s administration updated Proclamation 10014, extending a pause on the entry of H-1B, H-2B, J and L visa holders into the country through the end of the year. These actions hurt both the advancement of research and our nation’s scientific leadership. In response, Congress must pass legislation to restrict executive authority over the entry of immigrants into the United States and codify an extension of the Optional Practical Training, or OPT, program for STEM graduates.

My mother earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer science after immigrating to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. Now, I conduct chemistry research at UC Berkeley, the first in my family to pursue a doctorate. In my lab, I work with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from around the world whose visas allow them to study and do crucial work in the United States.

Most scientific research is done by early-career scientists — specifically, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. These scientists also serve as instructors, with 31% to 49% of UC Berkeley STEM doctoral students working as teaching assistants. Thus, as universities and labs scramble to adapt and develop solutions for COVID-19, protecting scientists who are immigrants to this country is critical. The xenophobia embedded in Proclamation 10014 directly contradicts the diversity that is central to the development of young researchers and will cause a significant loss of talent for our country.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the president has the authority to restrict the entry of foreign nationals; the recent proclamation weaponizes that authority to target nonimmigrant visa holders. This puts visa holders traveling outside the United States — for example, to visit family abroad — at risk of being denied reentry and prohibits the entry of any new visa holders. In practice, these restrictions will deter many researchers from applying for visas and push many who are already here to leave.

There is bipartisan support for nonimmigrant visa programs, particularly for our post-pandemic economic recovery. Employer demand for H-1B visas — those that allow them to temporarily employ highly educated foreign professionals — has exceeded supply since 2004. U.S. business groups have spoken out against proposed cuts to the popular OPT program, which allows F-1 student visa holders to work for one year after graduation, highlighting the negative impact they would have on GDP, jobs, wages and innovation. Evidence suggests that limiting H-1B visas leads U.S. multinational companies to offshore jobs, reducing employment opportunities for U.S. workers.

In response, Congress must pass the National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants, or NO BAN, Act (HR 2214, S 1123), placing reasonable checks and balances on presidential authority to restrict entry of noncitizens into the country, imposing stricter requirements and requiring congressional oversight. The bill broadens the nondiscrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act and ensures that it applies to nonimmigrant visas, such as the F-1, H-1B and J-1 visas commonly used by scientists.

With a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers needed to override a presidential veto, now is the time for lawmakers to take a strong bipartisan stance to pass the NO BAN Act, which can prevent Proclamation 10014 from taking effect.

Lawmakers should also proactively introduce and pass legislation that codifies a permanent extension of the STEM OPT program to 36 months. This represents a long-term commitment to our international STEM graduates and ensures that their scientific expertise will benefit the United States as we tackle the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These attacks on our immigrant communities will not stop. Just this week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved to deport students who cannot attend in-person classes due to COVID-19. This announcement is disastrous, as UC Berkeley will likely be forced to cancel almost all in-person instruction for the fall semester. Therefore, this rule will make it extremely challenging, if not impossible, for international students, including graduate student researchers, to remain in the United States. Those forced to return home will face time zone differences, firewalled online learning tools, COVID-19 travel restrictions and the looming uncertainty of whether they’ll be allowed to return to the United States.

As our nation benefits from the fruits of scientific research, we have a responsibility to protect the scientists who make it possible, regardless of their nationality, place of birth or immigration status. We must also remember that immigrants have intrinsic value beyond the economic or scientific benefits that they provide. Today, we must stand with them to reject the Trump administration’s decision and instead advocate for immigration policies rooted in evidence.

Christopher Jackson is a doctoral candidate in chemistry at UC Berkeley and the president of the Science Policy Group at Berkeley.