Precision Immunology Institute at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (PrIISM)

New Visa Policies Harm America’s Interests

As current and former heads of leading American biomedical research laboratories and trainees in those laboratories, we strongly oppose the proclamation signed by President Trump suspending entry to the U.S. of individuals with many types of non-immigrant work visas and the latest action by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) limiting the participation of international students at colleges and universities in the U.S.

Far from supporting the American economy and the fight against COVID-19, these actions will significantly damage both efforts. These policies will drastically reduce the nation’s scientific competitiveness, which relies on recruiting the best and brightest scientists from around the world. Having these scientists and students here—many of them on the visas the administration wants to suspend—has enabled America to be the leading nation in biomedical research, spurring the development of numerous life-changing and life-saving medicines, many of which are currently benefiting patients with COVID-19 as well as many other diseases.

American institutions have long been a magnet for scientific talent, both American- and foreign-born, bound by their love for science, striving to solve complex problems. Before coming to the U.S., many of these international students and scientists have been educated and trained overseas at no cost to American taxpayers. Once here, they fuel advances in scientific knowledge that lead to economic growth in American biotech and pharmaceutical companies and improve health care in this country.

The exemptions to the current visa ban allow for visas to be granted to new recruits dedicated specifically to COVID-19 efforts. Unfortunately, these exemptions fail to take into account how scientific discoveries are made. Research that doesn’t explicitly focus on COVID-19 may yield knowledge that unexpectedly helps the quest for a cure or vaccine. And potentially even more worrisome, this restriction puts us at risk of being unprepared to thwart the next pandemic or address other major medical problems. Indeed, six months ago, none of us were researching COVID-19, but now many of us, including thousands of visa holders from all areas of biomedical science, have dedicated ourselves to halting the spread of this disease.

Even if temporary, these policies could irreparably alter America’s standing in science in the world by changing policies that have welcomed, embraced, benefited from, but also empowered foreign scientists across the nation for generations. The new restrictions send a very clear message that “your kind is not welcome.” This message, on its own, deters our most talented recruits, who are now obtaining offers from other, more hospitable countries.

The consequences of these policies will reverberate in the years to come. As responsible members of the scientific community as well as members of the American society that we all love, we feel a moral imperative to speak out against these harmful policies. We hope that others will join us in this endeavor to repudiate these policies, and that American research institutions will continue to be the envy of the world.

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