In Upholding Trump's Travel Ban, the Supreme Court Harms Scientists
Hani Goodarzi is trying to cure cancer. At the new lab he runs at the University of California, San Francisco, he and his team try to understand the disease’s molecular processes, building on his research into disease metastasis. Important, life-saving work. He has grants to write, bench work to oversee, but right now all he can think about is the pain that President Donald Trump’s travel ban will cause students and postdocs from Iran, where he was born.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court voted to uphold the president’s September 2017 proclamation restricting travel into the US for nationals from several countries, most of them predominantly Muslim: Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela (Chad was originally on the list but has since been removed). It was the Trump administration’s third attempt at a travel ban that did not violate federal law and the Constitution. In a 5-4 decision, the Court found that the president acted within his authority to control who can enter the country based on national security interests. While the majority opinion acknowledged Trump’s anti-Muslim comments and tweets, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the order was “facially neutral toward religion” and had a legitimate purpose.
Goodarzi saw this coming. His wife, also Iranian, is a lawyer and had warned of the likelihood of this outcome. But even that knowledge couldn’t keep him from feeling devastated. His parents and in-laws were hoping to relocate here from Iran to be closer to family. Those hopes are now dashed.
“Denying Iranian citizens access to family and relatives, it speaks for itself,” Goodarzi says. “It should not have happened. My mom is like 70 years old. She is not a threat to anything or anyone.”
But more than his own family, Goodarzi is worried about young researchers from Iran and the other countries targeted by the ban who are already in the US. “I want to protect the 20-years-olds who have come here in the last few years,” he says. “They are kind of stuck without really any hope of going back out or their families coming here for visits. It’s really challenging.”
Goodarzi knows the pain of that kind of long separation. When he was a student in the US, he had a single-entry visa, which meant he was unable to travel home to see his family for the whole length of graduate school. Even when his mother had a cancer scare, he could not go home—it would have risked his entire academic career.
As WIRED reported extensively when Trump introduced the first and most extreme version of the travel ban in January 2017, the restrictions are brutal for people in science, health care, and academia. Talented students and academics from the countries will find it much more difficult, if not impossible, to come to the US to study or work. After the latest version of the ban went into effect on December 8, 2017, Reuters reported that more than 8,400 people from the banned nations (including Chad) applied for visa waivers in the first month; 128 of those qualified for visas outright because of special exemptions, but of the more than 8,200 others only two waivers were approved. And those who do manage to get a visa will have to endure lengthy separations from their families, without a means of visiting them or having them visit the US. Goodarzi hopes researchers isolated here due to the ban receive support from their institutions.
“Denying Iranian citizens access to family and relatives, it speaks for itself.”
The repercussions of this will be felt not just by the individual families, but by American universities and scientific fields more generally.
Some universities spoke out against the ruling on Tuesday. “Northeastern University and its leaders remain opposed to the travel ban,” the Boston-based university said in a statement on its website, pointing to the letter its president wrote when the first ban was announced. “The travel ban executive order inhibits [the] free flow of scholars and ideas and sends a chilling message not only to promising and law-abiding individuals from the affected regions, but also to students and scholars from around the world who want to contribute to an open and welcoming society,” said Christopher L. Eisgruber, the president of Princeton University, where Goodarzi got his PhD.
According to the Institute of International Education, more than 12,600 Iranians were studying in the US in 2016-17. Many of them came to study life sciences, a result of Iran’s excellent and egalitarian undergraduate educational system coupled with the scarcity of lab equipment for graduate programs there, because of sanctions.
“Students will continue to leave Iran in droves,” Goodarzi says. “They will just not come to the US; they will go to other countries.” Especially when the graduate programs in Canada, Britain, and the European Union are catching up to their American counterparts. Reza Kahlor, an Iranian scientist at Harvard who has legal permanent residency, has been weighing whether to start his new company in Canada ever since Trump signed the first order last year. The news this week was almost too much to face. “I’m trying not to think about these topics too much at the moment for the sake of my sanity,” he wrote WIRED in an email.
The version of the ban upheld by the Supreme Court on Tuesday states that Iranians in particular may still enter the US under F visas for attending college, J visas for foreign exchange programs, and M student visas for vocational school, if they can pass extra vetting. Whether new visas of this class will be given out remains to be seen.
For the other Muslim-majority countries, the ban is even less clear; students are not explicitly called out as banned, but neither are they named as exempt. Instead, they will need to apply for special waivers. In his dissent Tuesday, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that the State Department has not issued guidelines about these waivers, and he expressed concern that “waivers are not being processed in an ordinary way,” citing statistics and anecdotes suggesting that people who are eligible are not receiving them. News reports appear to confirm that.
“There is confusion at the consulates and embassies,” says Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Rutgers University. “They haven’t issued any guidance to the consular officials as to how to apply these waivers.” That in and of itself may lead to students from these nations being denied visas, as it is less risky for a consular official abroad to deny a visa than to grant one that could be violating hard-to-decipher restrictions. People denied a visa abroad have no way to challenge or appeal.
Science is stressful enough without having to worry about whether you’ll ever see your family again. “I will not leave the country as long as this administration is ruling. It’s just too risky,” Alireza Edraki, a geneticist getting his PhD at the University of Massachusetts Worcester, wrote WIRED in an email.
Trump’s ban, and the Supreme Court decision to uphold it, also harms science itself. By making it more difficult or impossible for scientists to travel abroad to conferences, the exchange of ideas is hampered. When academics were unable to enter the US because of the ban last year, some conferences allowed them to use telepresence robots to present their work. But that is hardly a satisfying solution. Many academics boycotted US conferences in solidarity with their colleagues who could not attend.
In the face of such an inhumane policy, however, there are no good quick fixes.
“We just have to get through the next two years,” Edraki says. That kind of hope was rare among scientists WIRED spoke to on Tuesday. Most were resigned, keeping their heads down, trying to focus on their work.
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