More rigorous vetting, as well as a possible overhaul of visa programs for skilled workers, could constrict the flow of science talent into the United States.

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Grad students, postdocs with U.S. visas face uncertainty

The postdoc faces an excruciating choice. He has 6 months left on a U.S. work permit issued to many foreign graduate students and postdocs: a 1-year Optional Practical Training (OPT) permit. OPTs are routinely extended for two more years for those in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). But the developmental biologist, who works at a major California university, is from Iran, one of seven countries whose citizens are banned from travel to the United States for 90 days as new vetting procedures are put in place. (U.S. courts on 3 and 5 February put an emergency stay on the ban; an appeal by the Trump administration was pending at press time.)

The postdoc, who did not want to be identified for fear of drawing unwanted attention, must now decide whether to continue with his work on stem cells—gambling that the U.S. government by summer will be inclined to grant him an extension—or spend the next half-year boning up on techniques that will help him secure a position outside the United States. That would be a “drastic change in what I’m doing,” he says—one he would need to make immediately.

The most visible effect of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration was to halt travelers from the target countries. But the unnamed scientist’s plight highlights another consequence for grad students and postdocs already in the United States from the seven countries—Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Sudan. For those here on OPT and student visas, who number in the tens of thousands, visa renewal is far from assured in the uncertain legal and political situation. The dilemma “simply ruins their future. It’s a catastrophe,” says a Yemeni biologist who is on a university faculty on an H-1B, a 3-year visa for professionals. Even with his H-1B, on which 2.5 years remain before it needs renewal, the biologist says that he is now mulling a “plan B and C all the time.”

Lawyers are grappling with how to advise those facing such uncertainties. “There’s a lot of rumor and conjecture out there,” says Brendan Delaney, a partner at Leavy, Frank & Delaney in Bethesda, Maryland, who advises the National Postdoctoral Association. “It’s a fluid and changing situation, and unfortunately we don’t know how this is going to play out.”

Among the seven countries, Iran is being hit hardest: Forty-eight percent of visas issued to nationals of the target countries in 2015 went to Iranians, according to the State Department. Of the roughly 15,000 Iranian graduate students in the United States, 78% are studying in STEM fields. The large proportion of Iranians is also reflected in numbers obtained from the U.S. National Institutes of Health this week: Among 3716 foreign nationals working at the biomedical agency in 2016, 20 were from Iran, three were from Syria, and two were from Sudan; none was from the four other countries targeted by the executive order.

But a draft executive order leaked to the media last week suggests a broader threat to foreign postdocs, whatever their country of origin. Entitled “Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs,” the order appears to target the OPT program, a vital bridge for many foreign students as they finish their Ph.D.s and land postdoc stints. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 68% of foreign students completing Ph.D.s in 2014 applied for OPT status. The draft calls for the “reform” of the OPT program “to prevent the disadvantaging of U.S. students in the workforce.”

Loss or diminution of the OPT program would hurt, says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C. “Young people from Iran give up all of their life savings to be able to come to the U.S. to live as a poor graduate student. The ability to work for a year or so is very important,” he says, especially because it gives them the potential to find an employer who might apply for a green card on their behalf.

The draft order also calls for changes in the H-1B, a visa that allows scientists and other skilled foreigners to work in the United States for up to 6 years—the ultimate goal of many non-Americans who earn their Ph.D.s here. (Many H-1B holders end up qualifying for green cards.) The draft order directs officials to “consider ways to make the process for allocating H-1B visas more efficient and ensure that beneficiaries of the program are the best and the brightest.”

On the campaign trail last year, Trump was a sharp critic of the H-1B program, vowing last March that he would “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program.” Not surprisingly, some observers worry that the order’s intention is to shrink the program. “If this draft is going to be signed, the chance I get a job in academia or in industry here is almost zero,” says Omid Sameie, an Iranian Ph.D. student in astrophysics at the University of California, Riverside. He renewed his F-1 student visa at the U.S. Embassy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, last month and returned to the United States shortly before the executive order was signed. Though his timing was fortunate, he does not feel lucky. “I’m not sure I want to stay in the U.S. anymore.”