Image: AP

In April, a half dozen polar scientists are meeting at a US Air National Guard base in upstate New York to board an LC-130 cargo plane bound for Greenland. Once there, the researchers will spend a month traversing remote glacial terrain on snow mobiles, taking measurements at field stations to help NASA determine how quickly our planet’s vast northern ice sheet is melting.

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There’s just one problem: one of the team members, Samira Samimi, is no longer allowed to enter the United States to board that plane. With a stroke of a pen on January 27th, Donald Trump barred the Iranian glaciologist, a PhD student at the University of Calgary, Canada, from joining her team members. His executive order has thrown the group’s spring field season preparations into disarray and left Samimi fearful for the future of her research.

“I’m in between this being a joke and a nightmare,” Samimi told Gizmodo. “It took me forever to get somewhere that I can become a glaciologist. This [research project] is my whole PhD.”

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“There’s nothing about this that is right,” Mike MacFerrin, a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder who is leading the multi-year field study, told Gizmodo. “There’s no way that this helps our science at all.”

Samimi, MacFerrin, and their colleagues are not the only scientists reeling from Trump’s executive order on immigration, which bars citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—from entering the United States for 90 days, and calls for rigorous vetting of US visa applications from those countries thereafter. Scores of foreign-born scientists and engineers who hold research or teaching positions at American universities and companies are now fearful that if they leave the United States, they’ll be denied re-entry. Tech companies like Google have urged at-risk employees traveling abroad to return home as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, some stateside researchers are now considering leaving the United States for good.

Those researchers include Sarah*, an Iranian Earth scientist based at a top-tier university. “It’s been a few very horribly rough days,” she told Gizmodo.

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Sarah and her husband, also an Iranian, both received their PhDs in the United States, and both are now employed as post-doctoral researchers. They applied for a green card last year, and have yet to hear anything back. Her husband’s current fellowship expires in a month.

“We’ve already started looking into immigrating to Canada,” Sarah said. “There are thousands more like us.”

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Indeed, as an open letter which has been signed by over 7000 academics and 40 Nobel Laureates notes, more than 3000 students from Iran have received PhDs at American universities over the past three years, many in fields of science. As of Sunday, it appears those who hold green cards will not be banned from entering the country. But many Iranians, like Sarah and her husband, are in the country on work visas, meaning if they leave they cannot come back. Their parents and loved ones cannot come visit them.

“It’s like being in prison,” she said.

The situation isn’t any better for scientists from the other five countries, and it is decidedly worse for those displaced by the civil war in Syria, who have been barred from entering the country indefinitely. The immigration ban “will definitely affect scholar rescue placements,” Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, told Science News. 

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In other words, in addition to being blatantly discriminatory and quite possibly illegal, Trump’s immigration order is making it difficult for world experts in far-ranging academic fields to enter or remain in the United States.

“It’s a brain drain—immediately and specifically, if this order stays in place,” MacFerrin said.

“Half of our post-docs and sabbatical visitors are from foreign countries,” Avi Loeb, the director of the Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) at Harvard and chair of Harvard’s Astronomy Department, told Gizmodo. “This illustrates just how important diversity is for science. Science does not have borders.”

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In Loeb’s view, Trump’s immigration order poses several distinct dangers to science in America. There’s the immediate disruption of research activities, from field work to international conferences and workshops. There’s the likely possibility of a brain drain, if foreign-born scientists whose immigration status has been thrust into limbo choose, or are forced, to move elsewhere.

But most pernicious of all is the long-term effect the order might have—even if it is limited to 90 days, of which there are no guarantees. “It creates an atmosphere where you’re alienating whole societies,” Loeb said. “You may never know how much damage that will do, especially to young people.”

According to the executive order, visas and other immigration benefits can be issued on a “case-by-case” basis at the discretion of the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. But that’s small comfort to those who are being targeted, especially considering how clumsily the order has been implemented so far, sowing confusion and chaos at airports over the weekend.

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Ramin Ahmari, a computer science major with a double minor in human rights and statistics at Stanford University, said he’s torn over whether to forgo his student visa to be with his parents who are very ill, or to remain in the United States and finish his degree. Ahmari, who grew up in Germany, is currently developing a phone application for refugees, and another for dementia caregivers. Although he holds an Iranian passport, he has never lived there.

“I cannot leave the US for now as I wouldn’t be able to reenter and would thus effectively forego my Bachelor’s which would render me unable to work in the field I am educated in,” he told Gizmodo in an email. “On the other hand, my family back in Germany is sick and I might have to leave any day. It’s a tough decision I face every day I remain in the US. I also identify as LGBT and was initially attracted by America’s openness that has now also changed.”

“All our members are affected somehow,” Adam*, a PhD student at Stanford and member of the university’s Persian Students Association told Gizmodo. “The most adversely affected people are those that are 1) out of the country at the moment 2) have finished their studies recently and have a green card application pending (because their green card application will be rejected and they’ll have to leave upon notice).”

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Adam noted that a classmate of his was visiting his parents abroad at the time of the executive order. Like many Iranians, the classmate had a single entry visa, meaning he would have had to apply for a new visa to re-enter the country anyway. For now, embassies are not giving appointments for visa interviews, and existing interviews have been canceled. “He has effectively lost his PhD at the moment,” Adam said.

Paisley*, an Iranian-born stem cell researcher who currently holds a post-doctoral position at an Ivy League university, points out that Iranians who want to work in the United States were already subject to rigorous background checks that could take months. “It’s not like they haven’t checked us—every aspect of my life has been checked already,” she told Gizmodo. “I have a feeling I’m being punished for something I didn’t do. The thing that hurts me most is that this was so random, and I cannot anticipate what is going to happen next.”

Paisley told Gizmodo that prior to Trump’s order, she had planned on settling down in the United States. Now, with her visa status rendering her unable to travel to Europe or Canada to present research, or to visit her parents back in Iran, she’s not so sure. “How can I think about physics, or chemistry, or biology, if I’m thinking: was the last time I saw my mom really the last time?”

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“We all feel trapped and we don’t know what to do,” she added. “This will cause fear, this will break families, this will cause science to stop.”

For Sarah, Trump’s executive order is thick with irony. She and her husband left Iran to avoid religious discrimination. Now, they feel they are being targeted by affiliation with Islam, which they do not consider themselves part of.

“We left [Iran] because we were atheists,” she said. “We wanted to have a better life—to live in a free land where we wouldn’t be judged by our nationality or religion, or lack thereof. This has been really heartbreaking.”

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Right now, Samimi and her colleagues are scrambling to find an alternate way for her to join the field team this spring. It’s possible that she can catch a separate flight to the port city of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, through Iceland or Denmark, on her own dime. But to get from Kangerlussuaq to the field sites, the group has to board another US military plane. Right now, it’s unclear whether Trump’s executive order will impact Samimi’s ability to get on that second plane—and if she can’t, there’s no point in her going at all.

That’s a possibility she’s not ready to face.

“I’ve wanted to be a glaciologist since I was 16,” she said. “This is my dream. I am not letting one man take away my dream.”

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* These scientist’s names have been changed to protect their identities.