A serious immigration problem you probably haven’t heard about
Originally Published in The Hill
Opinion by Nolan Rappaport – August 30, 2021
President Biden has made much of his intent to “follow the science,” but an unintended consequence of what appears to be a hasty decision on immigration policy could render U.S. science subpar, slow and uncompetitive, not only on COVID, but on a host of fronts with potentially serious impacts for U.S. competitiveness and leadership for years to come.
On Aug. 3, more than a thousand foreign postdoctoral research assistants — known as “postdocs” — who are affiliated with academic and non-academic institutions in the United States posted an open letter to the U.S. government asking for an exception to President Biden’s Jan. 25 COVID-19 travel restriction proclamation because it is making it difficult for them to enter the United States with their J-1 student visas or their H-1B Specialty Occupation visas.
For those outside academia and corporate labs, “postdocs” are people who hold a doctoral degree and are engaged in a temporary period of research and/or scholarly training.
More to the point: They are an essential component to the United States’ scientific enterprise — from computer science to engineering.
According to an August 2021 policy brief from the National Foundation for American Policy, postdocs assist in critical research at United States universities after completing their doctorate, and 56 percent of the postdocs at U.S. universities are foreign nationals who work on temporary visas. Postdocs have experience in advanced research, which makes them an important part of scientific research in the United States. They “provide much of the labor, ideas, and innovation in many labs.” Moreover, the vast majority of the foreign postdocs have received their Ph.D.s from universities outside the United States, which “provides the United States with direct connections to research recently performed at universities around the world.”
As nice as that may sound, the life of a postdoc is tough. For a few years, at least, they are expected to work for less than many of their colleagues would be willing to accept — with little job security and lots of stress — in the hope of good things in the future. The postdoc’s low salary — estimated at $52,000 in 2008 and pegged at a median of $47,500 more than 10 years later — is key in grant-funded research. Economically, the postdoc is a key component of how our scientific system works.
Without them — a majority of whom are foreign — the system begins to grind to a halt.
The postdocs who signed the letter to the Biden administration claim that his COVID immigration restrictions aren’t just a problem for postdocs seeking to come to the United States. They’re also a problem for the ones already here: if those postdocs leave the country for any reason, such as to go home for a short visit, they will not be allowed to re-enter the United States when they return unless they have a National Interest Exception (NIE) — and it’s taking up to 60 business days to get one of those exceptions, and most J-1 visa holders are not allowed to leave the country for more than 30 days.
I understand why Biden issued executive orders reversing former President Donald Trump’s immigration enforcement and border security measures the day he took the oath of office — He had promised to reverse those measures when he was campaigning for the presidency.
I don’t understand why he reversed Trump’s last COVID-19 proclamation five days later — the action that’s causing the problem for the postdocs.
Trump issued his proclamation initially on January 31, 2020, as the pandemic began: It suspended the entry of immigrants and nonimmigrants who posed a risk of bringing the 2019 Novel Coronavirus into the country. It initially applied to people coming from China; other countries with high rates of infection were added later. A few days before his presidency ended, Trump issued a new proclamation that limited the suspension to aliens who had been in China and Iran. The other countries that had been on his list had agreed to cooperate with a CDC order requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a flight to the United States.
On Jan. 25, 2021, Biden issued his own COVID-19 proclamation that effectively reversed Trump’s — putting back under suspension the countries — primarily in Europe — that Trump had removed and adding a list of exemptions. J-1 student visas and H-1B Specialty Occupation visas were not listed among the exemptions.
It smacks of haste. Was Biden just determined to reverse Trump’s immigration and border security measures, regardless of the consequences?
In his apparent haste, he provided an exception for aliens whose entry would be in the national interest (NIE), but provided no procedure for making that determination quickly when delay could hurt the national interest — such as when the bureaucratic gears to get an NIE turn so slowly a postdoc’s visa expires during the wait.
Some groups, such as F-1 and M-1 students have been given a blanket NIE, which means that they automatically are considered for an NIE when they seek admission to the United States at a port of entry.
Presumably, if Biden hadn’t acted so hastily, he would have provided a procedure for quickly granting requests for such blanket exceptions in his proclamation.
It’s not too late to do that now, and in the meantime, he should consider granting a blanket NIE to postdoc researchers and other appropriate groups. If he wants the U.S. to continue competing on the world stage in science and technology, it’s essential.
Nolan Rappaport was detailed to the House Judiciary Committee as an executive branch immigration law expert for three years. He subsequently served as an immigration counsel for the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims for four years. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals for 20 years. Follow his blog at https://nolanrappaport.blogspot.com.
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