Why I ...believe US visa restrictions will damage science

February 6, 2004

My husband and I are scientists who emigrated from Europe to the US in the 1960s, returned to Europe for nine years in the 1990s and were then recruited by an American university as senior professors in 2000. Life since the 2001 terrorist attacks, however, has been a rude awakening to the new realities of life as an immigrant to the US.

Despite having been permanent residents, teachers and researchers here for so long, and regardless of the fact that our children were born in the US and our pension funds are in US accounts, we have been unable to regain permanent-resident status after more than three years.

We set about renewing our three-year work visas well before their expiry date, but the legitimate business of travelling to a conference abroad has led to them being rejected and to us having to refile for them not once but twice with, as yet, no resolution. If we do not get them renewed or get work permits, our university will have no choice but to terminate our appointments.

Moreover, we are not allowed to travel outside the US, since that jeopardises our application for residency. We must now apply for advanced parole to travel abroad to meetings with no certainty as to when, or whether, this will be granted. This is particularly distressing since we cannot fulfil engagement to speak at overseas meetings, visit family members or fulfil obligations required of us as senior officers in international science organisations.

Scientists who have come to the US from outside Europe are in even worse predicaments, often completely cut off from family for years for fear of losing their visas, prevented from exploring the job market in their home country or shifting positions in the US. Those applying for entry to the US as students at pre and postdoctoral levels face huge delays and many uncertainties regarding visa approval.

What is not clear to any immigrant is to what degree the long delays in processing documents are due to inefficiency, a lack of trained immigration personnel, the need to verify documents or a straightforward attempt to discourage the fainthearted. The lack of any contact with immigration officials, the fees charged by unscrupulous immigration lawyers, the arbitrary nature of rules that are poorly publicised or arbitrarily applied and the threats to careers, normal life and family contacts have certainly not been a usual part of immigrant life in the US in the past and bring alarming echoes of a police state.

It is understandable that every country would wish to scrutinise those asking for resident status. However, it seems counterproductive for the US government to discourage skilled scientists and students from joining the country's academic enterprise. In my discipline, 30 per cent of graduate students and 60 per cent of postdoctoral fellows in the US are foreign citizens. As these students provide so much of the labour force within US laboratories and undergraduate teaching, their falling numbers are of serious concern to academia, especially when US-born students are increasingly less interested in undertaking the arduous business of a research career. Because the excellence of American science has been built with so much immigrant talent, the impact of immigration policies is likely to be very serious.

Outside the US these policies could prove beneficial - there has long been a scientific brain drain to the US but, as immigration difficulties build, the situation may become reversed. However, the whole world will lose if the end result of these immigration policies is to isolate the US from the kind of contacts that can bring it better understanding of other nationalities and thereby lessen the chances of global conflict.

Jane Smith
University of Texas
( For legal reasons, the author is writing under a pseudonym)

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