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Academia Has Everything to Lose in This Election

The academic community cannot remain silent when its people are under attack.

By Alex J. Najibi
Alex J. Najibi is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

To the academic community, the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict H-1B work visas and F and J visa stays were alarming — but not surprising.

By now, we are well aware of the Trump administration’s systematic opposition and denial of scientific investigation. Slashing funding, marginalizing experts, and suppressing certain research have made a mockery of rational decision-making and leadership. A global pandemic has killed over 220,000 Americans, and nearly a third of us believe in coronavirus conspiracies.

Yet even more damaging are the Trump administration’s attacks not against science itself, but against its foundation: its people.

The promise of American research rests on the contributions of immigrant and international trainees. Roughly half of Ph.D.-level science workers and postdoctoral researchers, as well as more than a quarter of science and engineering faculty in the U.S. are immigrants. From groundbreaking discoveries and patents to Nobel Prizes and job creation, immigrants are essential drivers of American scientific innovation. And for decades, the promise of a thriving, global-focused research community has positioned the U.S. as a world leader in science and engineering. “If someone has merits, this is the country where he/she will be recognized,” said Dr. Taslim A. Al-Hilal, who was raised in Bangladesh and now works as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso’s School of Pharmacy.

But over the past four years, the situation has changed, and national politics are impossible to ignore. Donald Trump and his administration have clearly communicated that immigrants are no longer welcome, and life in America can no longer just be about the research.

For new arrivals to the U.S., Trump’s hateful rhetoric invokes fear and a sense of otherness in an already uncertain situation. Trump’s political rise began when he falsely claimed Barack Obama was not an American and a Muslim, and therefore unfit to serve as President. While in office, he has denounced immigrants from “shithole countries,” demanded that women of color in Congress “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came,” and implicitly supported a white nationalist movement. Trump’s verbal harassment targeted at Muslim, Latinx, and Black immigrants in particular inspire legitimate concerns for physical safety.

This rhetoric has translated into harmful policy, with over 400 executive actions passed on immigration. This year, H-1B visas were frozen and the Muslim-focused “travel ban” was expanded. Even with valid documents, foreign-born researchers face increasing suspicion and instability. This July, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement abruptly barred international students taking online classes from remaining in the U.S. For students already facing a pandemic, this proclamation threatening deportation was deliberately cruel.

Students forced out of the U.S. would lose laboratory and educational resources, and face disruptions to housing, healthcare, and teaching. Unsurprisingly, the uncertainty caused by this order was a source of major anxiety — just the latest Trump administration action with significant psychological and material consequences for international students. Although later rescinded, the order made clear that the Trump administration will continually probe the boundaries for targeting immigrants.

Altogether, these words and policies have had their intended effect: Accosted by vicious policies, anxious about racist violence, and cut off from their families, foreign-born researchers feel more unwelcome, unsafe, and unable to plan for the future than ever. “The last 4 years have been absolutely exhausting. Each day you wake up wondering if the next policy decision will impact you,” wrote Dr. Ana M. Porras, a Colombian-born assistant professor in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida. “I do feel constant anxiety and it often distracts me from doing my research.” Other scholars question how to envision career plans even one or two years ahead, scared that Trump’s possible re-election might result in their having to return to their home countries.

The numbers reflect these feelings. Between 2015 and 2018, international student enrollment in U.S. universities dropped over 10 percent; international students who enrolled elsewhere listed the social and political environment as one of their top reasons. Concurrently, the U.S.’ relative research output has shrunk. Trends indicate a profound loss of international confidence in the U.S. worldwide, eroding its solid research foundation.

President Trump’s policies have been painted as a “war on science,” but this title is insufficient: Trump has attacked not only science but also its people — its humanity. By excluding immigrants and international students, and devaluing their lives and safety, his administration harms our community.

What can we, as academics, do about this? We can begin by learning: understanding immigrants’ stories and their positive impacts on American science, as well as the shifting policy landscape. Informed and motivated, we can contact our representatives, aid organizations involved in immigration justice, and speak out, proudly and vocally, both in support of international researchers and against the administration bent on ending them. We can vote for a candidate whose policies explicitly support science and scientists. In particular, professors have a responsibility to defend the individuals whose contributions have built their careers.

It is time to demonstrate our respect for our immigrant colleagues through voice and action, and preserve science’s humanity.

Alex J. Najibi is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

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