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Protestors opposing Trump's refugee order greet passengers arriving from international flights at Dulles airport in Virginia.

Protestors opposing Trump's refugee order greet passengers arriving from international flights at Dulles airport in Virginia.

Geoff Livingston/Flickr (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Scientists’ lives upended by Trump’s immigration order

Ehssan Nazockdast was planning to attend his sister’s wedding in Tehran in March. One hitch: The specialist on fluid dynamics at New York University in New York City is an Iranian citizen. That leaves him vulnerable under an executive order, signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday, that calls for the rigorous vetting of applicants for U.S. visas from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim nations, and bars the entry of any citizen from those nations for 90 days while procedures for that vetting are put in place. Nazockdast has lived in the United States for nearly a decade, has a green card, and has two young daughters with a wife who is a U.S. citizen. But now that Nazockdast is branded with a scarlet letter, he dare not leave. “I’m living in a big prison called the United States of America,” he says.

The new executive order has sparked chaos at U.S. airports and angst in anyone from the target countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen—with a valid U.S. visa or green card who happened to be outside the United States when the order was signed. It also has stateside scientists from the affected nations grimly contemplating the consequences for their professional and personal lives.

(On Sunday night, the secretary for homeland security, John Kelly, issued a statement deeming "the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest," essentially allowing the re-entry of green card holders. But U.S. officials have also said green card holders from nations covered by the order could receive extra scrutiny.)

Google on Friday urged more than 100 at-risk staffers who are now overseas to return as quickly as possible, according to Bloomberg News. Students and scientists away on holiday or for fieldwork too are rushing back. Their odds of a smooth re-entry are dicey at best. Refugees are being detained on arrival at U.S. airports, according to news reports. A blizzard of tweets, Facebook posts, and emails indicate that academics are among dozens with valid U.S. entry documents who have not been allowed to board U.S.-bound flights or have been turned back after arriving on U.S. soil.

Yesterday, a federal judge issued an emergency stay halting deportations of refugees with valid U.S. entry documents. And on Monday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations will announce that it intends to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court Western District of Virginia challenging the constitutionality of what it calls the “Muslim ban.” (The executive order also indicates that more countries may be added to the list of those slated for heightened scrutiny.) The order “is based on bigotry, not reality,” Lena F. Masri, the council’s national litigation director, said in a statement.

How can I stay in the United States and start my lab, thinking every moment, panicking, that I can’t go back home if something happens to my family? There are thousands of people like me.

Athena Akrami, Princeton University

Scientists of all nationalities and religious persuasions are up in arms. An open letter signed by more than 7000 academics and counting, including 43 Nobel laureates warns that Trump’s order “significantly damages American leadership in higher education and research” and calls it “inhumane, ineffective, and un-American.” We recognize the importance of a strong visa process to our nation’s security,” Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., said in a statement yesterday. But the order, she says, “is already causing damage and should end as quickly as possible.”

The executive order tosses a grenade into efforts to find safe havens in the United States for scholars displaced by the civil war in Syria and simmering conflicts in Iraq and Yemen. The Scholar Rescue Fund, run by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York City, has placed academics from those countries at U.S. universities. The order “will definitely affect scholar rescue placements,” says IIE President Allan Goodman. He anticipates that for the next several months, the fund will steer refugee scholars to Canada and Europe. “We place at universities all over the world,” Goodman says. “I’m confident they will also be prepared to step up and take more.”

Iranian researchers particularly vulnerable

Perhaps more Iranian academics will be hit by the order than any other nationality. The open letter notes that approximately 1500 students from Iran have received Ph.D.s from U.S. universities in the past 3 years. Hananeh Esmailbeigi, an Iranian-born biomedical engineer at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC), says that many UIC faculty and department heads are Iranian. “I joke that you would be OK knowing only Farsi on campus,” she says.

Now, Esmailbeigi’s mood is bleak. The green card holder says she teaches 300 students a year about how to design medical devices. “Now, I’m flagged as being a threat to the country. It just doesn’t make sense.” Iran’s foreign ministry yesterday labeled the executive order “a great gift to extremists” and vowed to take reciprocal measures that may include suspending issuance of visas to U.S. citizens.

Scientists from the other six countries are suffering too. Wael Al-Delaimy, an Iraqi-born physician and chronic disease epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), travels six times a year to U.S.- or UCSD-funded projects in Ecuador, Mozambique, Jordan, and India that address topics such as indoor air pollution and refugee mental health. A green card holder, Al-Delaimy says he is now afraid to leave the United States, which will hobble his work. He takes no solace from the fact that the executive order’s ban on Iraqis entering the United States is limited to 90 days. “I am fearful that this is just going to be extended and extended. That this is just a litmus test to see the reaction, and once people are complacent they go ahead and [a permanent ban] becomes OK.”

When Trump on the campaign trail last year announced his intention to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Al-Delaimy says his 10-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, asked him, “Where are we going to go if we are going to be banned from this country?” Al-Delaimy answered: “'We are not going anywhere. This is your country and our residence.' I reassured him. But now frankly I am beginning to think this is maybe not going as I told him.”

Yasser Roudi’s predicament brings the impact of the executive order on the free flow of ideas, and scientists, into sharp focus. A theoretical physicist, neuroscientist, and Iranian national, Roudi has dual appointments at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience Centre for Neural Computation in Trondheim, Norway, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He is preparing to return to Norway next month for a 6-month stint in his Trondheim lab, where he collaborates with Nobel laureates May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser. He recognizes that he may not be able to return to Princeton, and that his science will suffer as a result. Still, Roudi says, “My case is to some degree luxurious because I have a job somewhere else. I can continue working. But this is going to affect a lot of other people who are in the process of establishing themselves as scientists. That is the biggest place that society will feel the damage.”

Reduced flow of talent to United States?

The U.S. scientific community is bound to lose some luster. As dean of the Graduate School at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, Nasser Zawia, a neuroscientist of Yemeni origin and a naturalized U.S. citizen, oversees recruitment of international graduate students and helps land postdocs at his university. He is deeply concerned about the impact of the executive order on this recruiting. “The Ivy League [schools] are not going to suffer because they get a lot of good domestic talent. But the others who rely on international scholars and students and postdocs will be impacted.”

When the first news about the pending executive order came out a few days ago, Athena Akrami, an Iranian neuroscience postdoc at Princeton University on an H-1B visa, brainstormed with fellow Iranians she knew in U.S. labs. “We were really worried, and felt we had to do something,” she says. They drafted the open letter, and on Friday morning at 8 a.m., emailed it to their lab colleagues and friends. The letter was circulated widely, and responses flooded in. By noon, “We were overwhelmed. It is really heartwarming,” Akrami says. “We are so hyped and energized that we haven’t felt the pain yet.”

One ray of hope is a provision of the executive order that would allow issuance of visas “in the national interest.” The secretaries of two departments—state and homeland security—would need to sign off, on a case-by-case basis. “We’re going to have to demonstrate that the rescue of science and learning is in the national interest,” Goodman says. “There’s lots of precedent I hope we can draw on. It’s going to take American Nobel laureates and university presidents and us together pleading each case.”

Trump’s signature on the order may still be drying, but the lives of many scientists are already being upended. Akrami, who is finishing up her postdoc, turned down an offer last year from a European university. “I felt that overall, U.S. academia was better for me.” Now, she asks, “How can I stay in the United States and start my lab, thinking every moment, panicking, that I can’t go back home if something happens to my family? There are thousands of people like me.”

Esmailbeigi, meanwhile, had booked a ticket to Tehran for her father’s 60th birthday party in March. Instead, she’s now contemplating a permanent departure—possibly to the United Kingdom, where her sister works in bioinformatics. “You don't choose which country you’re born into. But you choose which country you move to,” she says. “I chose here, despite all the difficulties. Now, I honestly regret that decision.”

*Update, 10:58 p.m. 29 January: The name of the Association of American Universities has been corrected. Earlier, this story was updated with White House officials' comments on green cards, and to clarify Wael Al-Delaimy's research and Hananeh Esmailbeigi's reaction to events.