As international scholars, we play a crucial role in powering research at the UC system. We are also proud members of our local communities, schools and faith organizations. But because we are not U.S. citizens, we cannot vote. This year, more than ever, we want those who can vote to know what is at stake for the future of scientific research.
International researchers form the backbone of the UC system’s research enterprise and many other research institutions in the United States. At UCSF, for example, a little more than fifty percent of postdoctoral scholars are international. Nationwide, it is estimated that between one-half and two-thirds of researchers are on temporary visas. Between 1901 and 2019, 35% of U.S. Nobel laureates in medicine, physics and chemistry have been immigrants. Young people from all over the globe set their sights on coming to the UC system to work with leaders in their respective fields.
We are no exception. Carmen is from Italy and came to the United States for the opportunity to work in a prominent lab at UC Davis, where she studies how specific cells of the brain are involved in neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism. Mehmet is a postdoctoral researcher in physics, originally from Turkey, who waited out a 10-month delay to come to the United States and contribute to the science of nanomaterials at UC Berkeley.
For a long time, the United States has operated according to an important principle: The best research in the world does not happen in a vacuum. It happens when ideas are exchanged freely and when individuals across the world come together to solve problems. Without practicing these ideals, science simply cannot flourish.
But the United States is turning its back on science and research as international workers are increasingly targeted by President Donald Trump’s administration. The examples are numerous, from the travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries to the June 22 presidential proclamation impacting an estimated 167,000 foreign work visa holders. More recently, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced plans to bar entry to international students taking fully remote course loads due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and now a Department of Homeland Security proposal is looking to shorten visas for international scholars. Through it all, international workers such as ourselves have faced, and continue to face, growing precarity. Many of us question whether we are welcome in the United States or whether we need to uproot the lives and research that we have invested so much time in here.
The June 22 presidential proclamation complicated Mehmet’s ability to get an H-1B work visa. He and his spouse are growing concerned about their plans to start a family in the United States. Carmen has been impacted by COVID-19-related travel restrictions for noncitizens and is worried about her ability to attend conferences and visit relatives.
Each time a new policy is announced, our ability to live and work in the United States is thrown into question. Each time, we must embark on a new round of study to understand the implications of the policy, incur new costs speaking with immigration attorneys and spend precious emotional capital conferring and supporting fellow international workers who share our questions and concerns. The time and energy drained by the precariousness of immigration status and constantly changing political landscapes impacts science, research and the well-being of international scholars.
About 50% of research funding at UC Berkeley comes from the federal government: It doesn’t make sense for this same government to then deny the ability of many researchers to do their work.
Policies targeting international workers do not seem to be carefully crafted nor do they seem the result of democratic processes. Instead, the motive seems quite simply political: scapegoating international workers to distract from the actual economic hardship many U.S. workers are experiencing.
In fact, recent studies show that having more immigrants in the workforce does not significantly impact the unemployment of native-born workers and can even lead to a slight uptick in the number of native-born workers in the workforce.
We have several colleagues who are seriously considering taking their careers elsewhere if Trump is reelected — colleagues who want the security of knowing they can travel to their home countries to see their elderly parents without fear of being unable to return to their jobs. Colleagues who want to spend less time navigating bureaucratic hurdles and more time focused on their research, their communities and their families.
So we are speaking out and fighting back. Through our union of Postdocs and Academic Researchers at the UC system, United Auto Workers Local 5810, we took part in suing the Trump administration on several occasions, most recently joining the lawsuit that helped beat back ICE’s deportation plans. Our union members help educate representatives in Congress and push our universities to protect our rights.
If you are a voter in the United States, we urge you to cast your ballot for pro-science, pro-immigrant candidates. The research community and those who depend on it — all of us — must reject political attacks on international scholars and researchers.
Mehmet Doğan is a UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher. Carmen Falcone is a UC Davis researcher.