Concerns about scientist immigration to the US have amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic

From the trade publication, Chemical & Engineering News:

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused research disruptions and career delays for many chemistry graduate students and postdoctoral scholars worldwide. But in the US, scientists were already worried about the effect that President Donald J. Trump’s administration is having on the flow of people coming into the country to study or work. Some are concerned that the pandemic is making that situation worse.

In the US, concerns about immigration have amplified

International student applications to the US have declined since Trump took office, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. The drop in applications is something that most experts attribute to anti-immigrant rhetoric from the administration.

The White House has moved beyond rhetoric during the pandemic. On June 22, Trump issued a temporary ban on H-1B and other non-immigrant visas often used by companies and universities to hire international scientists, including postdocs. He also extended a previous order that halted processing of some green card applications for permanent residency.

BY THE NUMBERS: INTERNATIONAL SCIENTISTS IN THE US

1.6 million

Number of international scientists studying or working in the US as part of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program in 2018, down 1.7% from 2017

70,000

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students working in the US through an Optional Practical Training visa extension in 2018, up 8% from 2017

36%

Proportion of chemistry doctoral degrees awarded to students on a non-immigrant visa, out of a total of 2,810 degrees awarded in 2018

189

Scientists alleged by the US National Institutes of Health to have violated foreign-influence reporting rules since 2018; of these, 82% were Asian and 14% were white

54

Scientists who resigned or were dismissed from their jobs since 2018 because of alleged violation of US National Institutes of Health foreign-influence reporting rules

Sources: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Science Foundation, and National Institutes of Health

In addition, Trump has issued a vaguely-worded executive order limiting visitors associated with China’s “military-civil fusion strategy.” He also shut down some flights from China to the US. In Congress, a billsponsored by several Republicans would stop immigration from China altogether. Those moves could have a significant impact on scientists’ ability to get visas at the same time that closed borders and consulates along with canceled flights are keeping them from traveling.

Schools outside the US are taking advantage of the resulting uncertainty, says University of Chicago chemistry professor Weixin Tang. One example she has seen: a Hong Kong university is advertising for PhD students and postdocs, even though it isn’t their usual hiring season. “They’re opening up slots to recruit students and postdocs who were scheduled to come to the US,” she says. In addition,

In addition, attacks on Chinese scholars are of particular concern to scientists given the large numbers of students and postdocs in science fields, including chemistry, who historically have come to the US for training. Contributing to the unease are the US Department of Justice’s efforts to prosecute scientists who collaborate with China, an initiative started as part of a larger US-China trade war.

Peter Kilpatrick, provost at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), says his school has seen declining enrollment from China. The Chinese government does overreach in its technology-gathering efforts, he says, but “the vast majority of the people in China are not associated with the government, and they’re not responsible for espionage and [intellectual property] theft, etc. So the question is where do you draw the line? How do you parse who to throw the doors open to and who to say ‘We need to be careful.’ ”

Many universities are particularly concerned about rumored threats to optional practical training (OPT), which allows students and postdocs to extend their student visa to do internships or work in the US. For science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students, visas may be extended up to 3 years under OPT. Trump has so far not restricted OPT extensions, although he could still do so in the future.

At IIT, loss of OPT would be a threat to the institution itself, Kilpatrick says. The school relies on tuition from its large number of master’s degree programs.

“If OPT goes away, we lose all of our international students. I mean, what would be their motivation for coming?” he asks. Many people come to the US because they can combine getting a degree with the chance to get work experience and gain connections in the US. Without that, it could be “the death knell for higher education in this country,” Kilpatrick says.

Chuan He, a University of Chicago chemistry professor, says loss of OPT “would be a pure disaster.” OPT provides a critical opportunity at a key time in international scientists’ careers for them to transition from one job to another, and it is vital to keep highly trained students with critical skills in the country, He says. “We want them to stay, right?”

Computational and theoretical chemist Varun Rishi used OPT to work as a postdoc after he got his PhD at the University of Florida: first at Virginia Tech and then, since October 2019, at the California Institute of Technology.

Source: Concerns about scientist immigration to the US have amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 can’t be used as an excuse to limit skilled immigration

More commentary in the US business press on the risks to the US economy of restrictions on high-skilled immigration (H-1B and OPT:

Memorial Day is an excellent opportunity to celebrate the contributions immigrants have made to America. However, worrying news has emerged that the Trump administration plans to limit highly skilled immigration in an attempt to goose employment.

Such a policy shift would not only be deleterious to our nation, but an ill-founded solution to spiraling unemployment.

From the earliest days of the republic, immigrants have been vital to our national identity. Hot dogs andhamburgers are products of immigrants, and immigrants have played a part in founding iconic American companies like Google, Tesla, and Uber. But now, the administration and some lawmakers are using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to tear down programs that have helped bring talented workers and students to the U.S., where they are crucial contributors to our economy.

The two most prominent programs being targeted are H-1B visas and Optional Practical Training, or OPT. H-1B visas allow U.S. employers to temporarily hire foreign workers in occupations that require specialized knowledge and skills, with stays ranging from three to six years. OPT allows foreigners with student visas to work in the U.S. following graduation for periods between one and three years, depending on their field of study.

Restricting these programs could have an enormous impact on the tech and engineering fields. Many leading U.S. companies were founded by immigrants and depend upon these programs to employ talented international students and workers. About 18% of the entire labor force is foreign-born, with one in four STEM workers being an immigrant, according to an American Immigration Council analysis of American Community Survey data.

Furthermore, more than half of startups with revenues of $1 billion or higher have immigrant founders or cofounders, according to a National Foundation for American Policy study. And immigrants or children of immigrants are responsible for founding or cofounding 45% of 2019’s Fortune 500 companies, per New American Economy.

International students, who make up over 5% of American university students with more than 1 million studying here, contributed about $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the Institute of International Education.

Our health care system will also be at risk from a policy change. The pandemic has highlighted the role of health care workers in our society, so limits on highly skilled immigration could have fatal consequences for Americans.

Colleges are already fearing the impact of COVID-19 on enrollments and endowments; we are simply not in a financial position to reject qualified students who dream of studying and working in our nation.

To be sure, some schools operate as irresponsible “visa mills” that trade a substandard education for work opportunities in the U.S. But that problem can be solved by not extending H-1B and OPT authorization to students from those colleges and universities.

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on all of us, but this crisis should not be used as an excuse to allow xenophobia to stifle our future growth. The U.S. has been and always should be a nation of immigrants. Now more than ever, we must remember the importance of immigration, which has fueled technological ingenuity and economic productivity for our entire history, shaping America’s character as a symbol of freedom and innovation.

Welcoming highly skilled and talented foreign students and workers is our best path to promoting employment of native-born Americans. We need great minds from all corners of the world to preserve America’s technological prowess, social diversity, and economic vitality. Preserving the H-1B and OPT programs will benefit us all.

Source: COVID-19 can’t be used as an excuse to limit skilled immigration