Scientists, biotech companies, and medical societies are reacting with outrage and dismay to President Trump’s executive order (EO), signed on June 21, 2020, that restricts the issuance of new work visas for skilled workers and managers (and au pairs) through the end of 2020.

The visas affected include the H-1B, H-4, H-2B, L-1, and J categories. The EO means that foreign graduate students and postdocs would be banned from entering the United States. Almost every major research lab includes a diverse mix of research talent from around the world. Many of these scientists eventually lead their own groups, move to industry, and/or become naturalized U.S. citizens.

In the science community, many are reacting and expressing their concerns about the future of labs, and how the EO will affect research and innovation. Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, who is a professor in the department of immunobiology and department of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University (and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute) expressed her dismay.

Iwasaki tweeted: “This is the worst thing that’s happened to U.S. science and innovation. Banning immigrant scientists will lead to a devastating loss in creativity and productivity. Pretty much every lab in the U.S. will suffer.”

The EO also extends Trump’s April 22 order denying green cards to applicants in several immigrant visa categories. The Trump Administration says its goal is to protect 520,000 jobs and get Americans back to work. “We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens,” stated President Trump.

In marked opposition

But many scientists in academia and industry not only disagree with the executive order but also highlight how their labs would look without their immigrant postdocs. Samantha Morris, PhD, an assistant professor of genetics, and developmental biology at Washington University School of Medicine, expressed her frustrations on Twitter.

Florian Krammer, PhD, professor of microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, expressed concern about colleagues working on SARS-CoV-2. “I am about to hire a postdoc from Spain who is specialized in vaccine production and a postdoc from Japan who is specialized in mucosal immunity to virus infections. I might not be able to hire them if this is signed. Both would have worked on SARS-CoV-2 and influenza virus.” Krammer also posted a picture of his lab with and without immigrants, and the image paints a picture of what research labs may look like.

Lars Dietrich, PhD, associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, who came to the U.S. through a work visa expressed his thoughts on the EO. “The visa situation is disturbing. I came to the U.S. on a J1 visa, then transferred to H-1B before becoming faculty at Columbia University. I’ve always been inspired by the way that, in U.S. academia, people of diverse backgrounds can come together to do transformative science. It reflects values that the U.S. can be proud of, and it sets an example. It really saddens me to see the erosion of this commitment to diversity.”

Rebecca Bernhard, a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney in immigration, labor and employment practices, highlighted some exemptions in the EO. “One key exemption is for workers involved in the U.S. food supply system. This exemption should cover people involved in meatpacking and processing plants, as well as all aspects of the food supply chain from production to transportation and logistics,” Bernhard said.

“Another key exemption is for medical personnel working on COVID-19 research or treatment. Most physicians, nurses, and other medical personnel should still be able to obtain visas,” Bernhard stated.

But what will this mean for companies working on vaccines and treatments for COVID-19? Major companies such as Moderna Therapeutics, GlaxoSmithKline, Inovio, and others who are currently working on a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, had received approvals from the Department of Labor to hire foreign workers with either green cards or H-1B work visas more than 11,000 times from 2010 to 2019.

Society salvos

The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG), the world’s largest genetics organization, is urging the White House to rescind their executive order as it will hinder the progress of science and better human health. They also point out the importance of connecting globally especially with the coronavirus crisis.

“ASHG is deeply committed to a diverse and inclusive research workforce and honors those who come to U.S. labs from across the world to contribute to genetics and genomics advances in this country,” said ASHG president Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, MD, PhD. “Their experiences enrich American science and global science, and it is precisely America’s commitment to international collaboration that has made the U.S. a recognized global scientific leader. As the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic illustrates, we should be expanding global research connections that harness all minds to solve a problem, not closing our doors.”

In a strongly worded statement, Kevin Wilson, director of public policy and media relations at the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), said the EO will hurt science in the United States. “The decision by the Trump Administration to freeze through 2020 important U.S. visa programs that allow future scientists from around the world to come to the United States to learn is reprehensible. It goes against everything the United States stands for and violates the principle that scientific excellence requires collaboration, regardless of nationality.”

The ASCB statement continued: “It is American science and scientists who are the real victims of these policies. Without these talented individuals from around the globe, American biomedical research will not remain the world leader it is. If these policies are allowed to remain in place, the United States will no longer lead but will have to settle for the role of runner up.”

H-1B visas are used for skilled workers and are common in the technology industry; H-4 visas are given to spouses of H-1B visa holders. H-2B visas apply to seasonal workers; L-1 visas are used for managers or executives transferring to the United States from positions abroad; and J-1 visas are given to scholars, researchers, and au pairs. The EO stops the issuance of all J-1s except for those going to physicians, medical researchers, or secondary school students. The order does not apply to immigrants already living and working in the United States nor to permanent residents seeking to become citizens.

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