An international postdoctoral fellow explains how the executive order suspending thousands of work visas might force her to put her dreams of pursuing cancer research on hold
Adding to the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, earlier this summer, the U.S. government announced sweeping restrictions on immigration, disrupting the lives and work of thousands of foreign employees, in the U.S. have been disrupted. Amid rising unemployment rates caused by the coronavirus outbreak, White House officials have stated that the order “will free 525,000 jobs for Americans during a time of economic crisis.” However, it comes at the expense of immigrants, who, according to the Census Bureau, make up 17% of the U.S. labor force.
The restrictions include the H1-B visa program for skilled workers, which include many foreign postdoctoral scholars and faculty. Institutions across the country rely on this vibrant and essential component of the research and medical community.
“These measures have substantially disrupted the lives of some of our researchers, students and physicians,” says Janice Bogen, Assistant Vice-President of International Affairs at Jefferson. “There are some who can’t get to their families in another country, others whose return to the U.S. has been much delayed. It’s proven to be an extremely difficult situation during an already challenging time. We are doing our best to ensure the international community at Jefferson is as protected as possible.”
We talked to Dr. Nancy *, a postdoctoral fellow of Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Jefferson Health, who like many international researchers is reeling from the consequences of the visa ban and the implications on her future as a physician-scientist.
* Some identifying details and the name have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Q: Tell me a little bit about where you’re from and your path in science and research.
A: I am from India, where my father is a physician-scientist. I have always been inspired by the work he has done in his life. It is what motivated me to pursue a career in research. I came to the U.S. in 2016 for my masters. After graduation, I came to work as a postdoctoral fellow at Thomas Jefferson University. In this postdoctoral position, I have had the pleasure of working with some of the best faculty and investigators to contribute to cancer research. I have an amazing mentor and I am very lucky to be her postdoc.
Q: What drew you to the U.S. to pursue your scientific career?
A: The U.S. has been at the forefront for most if not all of scientific research. Whether in the field of medicine or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in general, universities and companies in the U.S. have given equal opportunities to everyone from aspiring students to senior scientists to pursue their interests in the field of research. These opportunities, in turn, have led to some of the most remarkable discoveries and inventions in the last 100 years. I came to the U.S. to explore these opportunities and to pursue my passion in the field of medical research.
Q: How has your experience in the U.S. been so far? How has it changed over time?
A: When I began my studies in the U.S., I was very excited. I enjoyed my classes, my professors, the new friends I made, and the overall experience. It was very different from my college experiences in India. I love the fact that despite being so culturally diverse, I never felt like an outsider in my university. However, as time went on, the restrictions imposed on me due to the fact that I was on a student visa did begin to creep into my daily life. This was especially true when I was looking for internships or jobs after my graduation. Not everybody was willing to fund work visas, and because after graduation we only have a limited time to work without a work visa, the type of job I got was critical. Despite the fact that I was already aware of these difficulties before coming to the U.S., when the time came to actually live through them, it was much more stressful than I had ever imagined. It began to affect my daily life and at times made me question my decision to come to the U.S. However, I did not want to give up on my dream and worked hard to pursue a successful future here.
In such a chaotic time when we are all working remotely, not able to even spend time with friends or even travel to see our families, these immigration restrictions have only doubled my daily anxiety and stress levels – Dr. Nancy
Q: How have you been impacted by the new immigration restrictions on H1-B visas?
A: The current H1-B visa executive order seriously affects me due to the fact that I was supposed to apply for my H1-B visa in the next few months. My current work permit expires soon and I need to have my H1-B approval prior to that in order to continue working. If my application does not fall under one of the stated exemptions, it will be a serious blow to my plans to continue to reside in the U.S. and continue my research. This affects not only me but my whole family, both mentally and financially. Now that my studies were finally over, I had hoped to be able to support my family financially going forward and help them retire in the near future. If I am unable to continue my research in the U.S., I know I can still continue working in India. However, I am well aware that I probably will not find the same kinds of opportunities there and unfortunately won’t be able to continue my research at the same level I am currently working on here.
Q: How has it affected this already chaotic time with the pandemic?
A: Being far away from my family is the hardest thing. When the global lockdowns began, the most worrying thing was that I wouldn’t be able to visit my family back home anytime soon. That uncertainty weighed heavily on my mind. However, these new immigration orders have intensified that uncertainty. Since I knew that the process for my H1-B visa had to be initiated this year, I was monitoring the news regularly for new developments, and when this order came in it honestly shattered me for the first few days. In such a chaotic time when we are all working remotely and are not able to even spend time with friends or travel, this unforeseen situation has only doubled my daily anxiety and stress levels.
Q: How does this policy affect your perceptions about the U.S., and your desire to stay here?
A: This policy and others of its type definitely do make me sometimes question my decision to continue to stay in the US. However, the fact that I love my work and I love the people I work with continues to motivate me to continue residing here. I know the research I am engaged in here will definitely help me contribute to society not just in the U.S. but globally. This has been my ultimate goal from the beginning, and I do not wish to give up on this dream.
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