Trump's Immigration and Travel Ban Causes Confusion, Disruption in Genomics Community

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Less than a week after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that temporarily bars citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, the regulation has already disrupted the work and lives of numerous scientists in the genomics community.

While the stated intent of the order, which for 90 days halts the entry of citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen into the US, is to prevent the arrival of terrorists, it has interfered with the professional and personal lives of scientists with valid visas or green cards who were planning to start new jobs, travel to conferences, give talks abroad, visit family, or receive visitors from one of the seven affected countries, according to several genomics scientists interviewed by GenomeWeb.

In addition, researchers fear that the order, which the president signed last Friday, will have long-term negative effects on the country's leadership in science, even if the restrictions for visa and green card holders are eventually lifted, as it casts doubt on America's promise to welcome talented researchers from all over the world with open arms and enable them to pursue their work in an unrestricted manner. As several countries compete with the US for talent in genomics, prospective students, postdocs, and scientists from nations on and off the current list might start to look elsewhere, and organizers of international scientific meetings might seek out venues in less restrictive countries, researchers said.

Among the first genomics scientists to be affected by the executive order was Samira Asgari, an Iranian citizen who recently finished her PhD in the lab of Jacques Fellay at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. She was supposed to shortly start a postdoc with Soumya Raychaudhuri, an associate professor of medicine and biomedical informatics at Harvard Medical School. On Saturday, she flew from Geneva to Frankfurt, where she was prevented from boarding her connecting Lufthansa flight to Boston, despite having a valid J1 visa.

Raychaudhuri said in an interview that he first met Asgari at last year's Biology of Genomes meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where she gave a talk about her work on the genomics of infectious disease, which involved the analysis of exome sequencing data from children with severe viral infections. After inviting her for an interview at Harvard and Brigham and Women's Hospital, where his lab is located, he offered her a position as a postdoc, which she accepted. "Being the ambitious young woman she is, she went off and applied for an independent fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation and got funded," he said.

As of Monday, Asgari was back in Geneva, and Raychaudhuri said he and his colleagues are working with both the Massachusetts attorney general's office and attorneys affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union to have her visa honored and bring her to the US.

Other scientists had to put on hold plans to present their genomics work at academic institutions and upcoming scientific conferences. Hani Goodarzi, for example, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, where he heads the Laboratory of Cancer Systems Biology and Translational Genomics, said he canceled a talk he was invited to give at the University of Calgary in Canada next Monday.

It's not very often that a junior PI in the first year of starting a lab gets invited to give talks. This was a very valuable opportunity for me, and to cancel that was really a big blow.

Goodarzi is an Iranian citizen and a permanent US resident who came to this country as a graduate student at Princeton University 11 years ago. He said that green card holders like himself likely qualify for an exception from the order on a case-by-case basis, but he was afraid of long delays at the airport and thus decided to cancel his trip. "My hosts were gracious, they were very understanding, but it's not very often that a junior PI in the first year of starting a lab gets invited to give talks," he said. "This was a very valuable opportunity for me, and to cancel that was really a big blow."

One of his two postdocs, who is also from Iran, is in a more dire situation because his visa will run out in a few months and under the current order, processing of new visas or permanent resident applications from Iranian citizens has been put on hold. "Depending on how long they put it on hold and how quickly they resolve it, this can very quickly become an issue," Goodarzi said. "My postdoc is lucky, he has quite a bit of time, months, but I have friends who have weeks."

Attendance by at least one scientist at the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology meeting in Florida later this month is also in jeopardy. According to Inanc Birol, associate professor of medical genetics at the University of British Columbia and a senior scientist at the BC Genome Sciences Centre, an Iranian student of his who is scheduled to present his work at AGBT may not be able to go, even though he is a Canadian permanent resident and has already received his visa to enter the US. While the Canadian government has said that Canadian permanent residents are exempt from the new order, US officials have not confirmed that, he said. "We don't know what is going on."

His student was "quite distressed" when he heard about the draft executive order last week, he said, and Birol initially reassured him that his AGBT attendance would likely not be in danger. "Naïve of me, I suppose," he said. For now, his student is waiting to see whether he might be able to attend eventually, and AGBT has agreed to refund his conference fee if he cannot go. "We would actually much rather like to spend that money to send him down there and report on this research," Birol said.

"Of course this is something that is well beyond him or myself, it has wide implications on society," he said. "But when these things start affecting us on a personal level, it becomes more real."

In response to the order, many universities across the US have sent statements to their faculty and students, advising those impacted by the ruling to postpone all international travel for the time being. A letter from Stanford University to its community on Saturday, for example, cited the experience of a Stanford graduate student and permanent US resident who last week returned from a research trip to Sudan and was detained at JFK Airport in New York and briefly handcuffed before being released.

It has wide implications on society. But when these things start affecting us on a personal level, it becomes more real.

Companies in the genomics space have also been reacting to the order, which has affected several of their employees. Illumina, for example, sent an internal email to employees to provide them with guidance and resources.

"Our primary concern is for our employees who may be directly impacted by this policy and we are doing everything we can to support them at this time," Illumina told GenomeWeb in a statement. "Our ability to innovate depends on a diverse and talented team of individuals from different geographies, backgrounds, and experiences. We will be proactively reaching out to members of Congress to share our concerns about how changes in immigration policies like this impact Illumina and our employees."

Poorya Sabounchi, a staff engineer at Illumina who is of Iranian descent, is a US citizen but is nevertheless affected by the travel ban. He and his wife, whose family is also from Iran, are expecting their second child and were planning to have both their mothers, who are Iranian citizens and live outside the US, come over to help after the birth, which they already did for their first child. "She was crying all Saturday," Sabounchi said about his wife, who works at HP, because it currently looks like neither relative will be able to come. This might force one or both of them to take a significant leave of absence from their jobs, he said.

Sabounchi, who stressed that he is not speaking on behalf of Illumina, said several fellow employees are currently restricted in their ability to travel or to receive visitors from Iran.

For many, the order seems to have come as a surprise. "We were not anticipating it," said Raychaudhuri, adding that he offered Asgari the job before the US election. "With the election, I have to say, it was clear that changes were going to come down the line," he said. "But it was unthinkable to me that anybody would pass a rule to ban someone like Samira from coming to the US. It makes zero sense."

"It has caused a lot of confusion," Goodzari said. "The uncertainty that it has caused is more devastating than anything else."

There is also widespread sentiment among affected scientists that the order unfairly singles out individuals from certain countries, and based exclusively on their country of origin. "It just doesn't make sense," said Sabounchi. "I'm from Iran, and all of a sudden I'm impacted, my family is impacted, and my friends are impacted, but someone who is from Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates is not impacted, while people from those countries have carried out attacks on the US."

"To me, it's akin to saying that 'we have had murderers called John, now we'll ban everyone who is called John, even with a hyphen, or a Jonathan'," Goodarzi said. He also pointed out that Iranians wanting to enter the US have already been under intensive scrutiny. "It wasn't that we were just walking in."

"When we vet individuals, it has to be a little bit deeper than, 'They're from this country and not from that country,'" said Raychaudhuri. "It should be a slightly deeper question, looking at the individual and what connections and motivations they may have. I'm not sure this has exactly the right formula to make America safe again."

"It feels like dropping a bomb in a jungle to kill one bird without even knowing whether the bird is there or not," Goodarzi said.

In the meantime, academic researchers and institutions, including prominent genomics researchers, are mounting opposition to an order that they say casts a net too wide and unfairly affects scientists who have come here for one main purpose: to pursue their research.

An open petition entitled "Academics against immigration executive order," for example, that has so far been signed by almost 15,000 US faculty members, 50 Nobel Laureates, almost 450 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Arts, and many others, opposes the order because it discriminates against a large group of immigrants and residents of the US based solely on their country of origin, places an undue burden on the people affected, and would significantly damage the US's reputation for academic excellence in higher education. The list of signers includes well-known names in genetics and genomics, such as Russ Altman, professor of bioengineering and genetics at Stanford; Michael Snyder, professor and chair of genetics at Stanford; and David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. Among those who used to work for the US government are former National Institutes of Health director and Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus.

Also, the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 leading public and private research universities in the US and Canada, issued a statement on Saturday in which it urged the Trump administration to end the new order "as quickly as possible" and "to make clear to the world that the United States continues to welcome the most talented individuals from all countries to study, teach, and carry out research and scholarship at our universities."

"One thing that's been really great about the scientific community is that the faculty have rallied to show their support and to recognize that this kind of policy is not conducive to science, which is what all of just want to focus on," said Roxana Daneshjou, a recent graduate from Stanford University School of Medicine's MD/PhD program and lead researcher of the Iranian Genome Project.

Her parents came to the US from Iran in the 1970s, and while she is a US citizen, she knows of numerous graduate students and postdocs from Iran at Stanford who are currently restricted in their travels. "This is an opportunity for scientists to stand up for our values," she said, and she feels encouraged by the fact that her former advisor, Russ Altman, who is also the principal investigator for the Iranian Genome Project, signed the academics' petition.

If you suddenly have a scientific culture where you can't invite people from certain countries [to a conference], that makes our nation a very unattractive place to have scientific meetings.

But even if the travel ban is lifted quickly for affected scientists who are on student visas or are green card holders, there is likely going to be long-lasting damage to the US's reputation as a destination for researchers from all over the world to work and exchange ideas.

Sabounchi, for example, who has a PhD in engineering, said he is already receiving messages from members of the scientific community who are contemplating moving international scientific conferences to venues outside the US, so scientists from all countries can attend.

For example, conferences like the Biology of Genomes that draw a large international crowd and where Raychaudhuri first met his prospective postdoc, may become less attractive if they are no longer open to all countries. "If you suddenly have a scientific culture where you can't invite people from certain countries [to a conference], that makes our nation a very unattractive place to have scientific meetings," he said.

In addition, scientists from many countries who are looking to go abroad for study or work might be less inclined to make the US their first choice. Already, it has been difficult for nationals from certain countries, including Iran, to obtain visas to the US. Birol said that it takes at least three months for an Iranian citizen to obtain a visa, and sometimes longer. His student, for example, has missed conferences in the US in the past because his visa did not arrive on time.

Birol pointed out that even during the Cold War, scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain enjoyed special travel privileges and were allowed to attend each others' meetings, and to return home from them. "If [the US is] stifling the travel privileges of scientists now, it is going to have an effect," he said. While Canada might benefit from this in the short term, "seeing the US decline in science is not in the interest of the scientific community," he added. "I'm hoping for a quick resolution on this, not only for my student but for the scientific community at large."

"I think what will happen is that now we will have a much harder time recruiting scientists from these countries or even countries around that region," said Goodarzi. When he came to the US as a graduate student, many of his friends from Iran already chose to go to Europe or Canada instead because it was easier to obtain student visa for those countries, and also because they were able to travel more freely once they arrived. He himself ended up not leaving the US for five years while being a student because his student visa only permitted a single entry into the US, and leaving the country would have meant having to apply again.

Raychaudhuri said that as a genomics researcher, he is particularly worried about the long-term effects of the order. "All science is international, but genomics in particular is one [field of study] where we draw upon interdisciplinary skill sets from people around the world," he said. "We share data, in many cases, freely with collaborators all over the planet. And the intellectual exchange that happens when people are able to visit each other, work with each other, that's been one of the key currencies of that collaborative network of scientists that make up our community."

Travel bans like the current one, he said, not only prevent talented individuals from coming in the short term but also have a chilling effect on those from other countries who are considering the US. International postdocs in his lab, for example, are wondering whether their own countries might be next on the list, Raychaudhuri said.

"Many, including me, have always thought of the US as a kind of open, collaborative scientific environment. And to have that concept threatened in this way doesn't only threaten people from the countries on the list but other countries as well where people may feel less secure coming here," he said. "The US certainly has competitors in genomics. I think of the US as really the absolute strength of genomic research but there are other, very competitive institutions all around the world that we compete with all the time to recruit postdocs and faculty," he added.

Goodarzi said the US is breaking the promise it made to immigrants from one of the restricted countries who came and stayed. "The US had this promise of: 'This is a nation of immigrants, if you come here, if you work hard, if you are successful, you are taken care of, you have rights, we'll protect you,'" Goodarzi said. But denying entry, even just temporarily, to permanent residents who have lived in the US for decades and call it their home, "I believe breaks a promise, which is one of the tenets of what made this country really great for immigrants, all around the world, for many, many generations," he said. "So, I think we have to remedy that as quickly as possible. Particularly in the case of scientists, we will start to lose them to other countries very quickly."

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