In the spring of 2019, Sara Mashhadi Nejad was ready to embark on a new chapter of her life. The aspiring environmental engineer in Iran had just been accepted to the University of Toledo, where she would conduct doctoral research on how Lake Erie pollutants harm children. But she became ensnared in a byzantine visa process that has left her marooned in Tehran—separated from her husband at Bowling Green State University and endangering her spot at Toledo.
Now, Mashhadi Nejad has reason to hope her agonizing wait may have a happy ending. Last week, President Joe Biden revoked former President Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, imposed in 2017, which barred citizens of Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States—leaving thousands of students and scientists in limbo. The Trump administration’s controversial policy “jeopardized our global network of alliances and partnerships” and was “a moral blight,” Biden wrote in a 20 January proclamation abolishing it.
Many researchers from affected nations welcomed the news. “It’s a great development,” says Nasser Zawia, a Yemeni-born pharmacologist and naturalized U.S. citizen at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston. “It’s like life is back to normal.”
Well, not quite. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced scientific gatherings to go virtual, so researchers from the formerly blacklisted countries—Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—won’t be flocking to the United States for meetings anytime soon. (Iraq and Sudan were initially listed but removed later in 2017; North Korea was added to portray the ban as not singling out Muslims.) And in the case of Iran, which of the six targeted nations has the most advanced scientific community, other factors dilute the good news. Sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States “have had an extreme effect on travel,” says Navid Madani, director of the Science Health Education Center in the Middle East and North Africa at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Iran’s currency has plummeted in value, making international travel a luxury that many cannot afford. “The situation is dire,” she says.
Still, Biden’s proclamation comes as a huge—and immediate—relief to tens of thousands of students and scientists already in the United States on single-entry visas who dared not leave the country out of fear that they would not get a visa to return. And it could foster collaborations on urgent scientific questions. “Iran has a robust vaccine R&D system,” says Madani, who was born in Iran. “The fact that we can’t work with their scientists on COVID-19 is a real problem.”
The policy reversal also aims to expedite a torturous and sometimes capricious visa review process—both in clearing a backlog of stalled applications and reconsidering denials stemming from the Muslim ban’s implementation. “Lifting the ban is a good step, but it must translate into actual facilitation of visas for scientific exchange,” says Wael Al-Delaimy, an Iraqi-born physician and epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego. “Trump created a climate of fear,” adds an Iranian quantum physicist in California who asked to remain anonymous. He says he was grilled by FBI and accused of being a terrorist after he applied for a green card for permanent residency in the United States in 2019. “Simply reversing the ban won’t make those fears go away.”
Trump’s immigration policy granted a waiver to applicants from the six countries who demonstrate that admitting them is in the “national interest.” One Iranian epidemiologist finishing up his Ph.D. in Florida on a student visa applied for a green card in March 2019, but his research on HIV, tuberculosis, and tobacco was deemed not in the national interest, he says. With a postdoc offer pending, he changed tack this week and applied to the U.S. Optional Practical Training program, a 12-month extension of a student visa.
An Iranian vascular specialist applied for her green card in May 2019. In spring of 2020, as she was working 80-hour weeks treating COVID-19 patients in an intensive care unit in Boston, she was awaiting a decision about whether her work is in the national interest. She has already received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine—and is still waiting for the waiver decision. “It took less time to make the vaccine,” she says.
Such tribulations have steered talent to other countries. “Iranian scientists mostly applied to Canada because it is close to the U.S. and they can eventually move to the United States,” says Masoud Mozafari, a biomedical engineer from Iran who has been working at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute since July 2019. “Another important advantage of Canada is the easy and straightforward immigration process,” he says.
U.S. institutions are likely to have difficulty attracting researchers deterred by the Muslim ban, observers predict. “I think the damage is done,” says Al-Delaimy, who chairs the Eastern Mediterranean Chapter of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology. But, he says, “Offering scholarships and exchange programs and sabbaticals with the impacted countries is one way to regain that trust.”
Like so many of her peers, Mashhadi Nejad has had a tough road. Because there is no U.S. embassy in Iran, she traveled to Yerevan, Armenia, in May 2019 for her visa interview. Her research was deemed in the national interest and she received her visa approval in March 2020—just when the COVID-19 pandemic began to hammer Iran and authorities closed the border. Mashhadi Nejad’s U.S. visa expired in July 2020, forcing her to start the process all over again. She has had to reapply three times to the University of Toledo, each time paying a new application fee and retaking the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The end of the Muslim ban has given her new hope of finally getting to the campus. She says: “I will persevere.”