Immigration ban is antithetical to scientific progress

By Boaz Barak and Omer Reingold

Update (1/28): If you are an academic that opposes this action, please consider signing the following open letter.

Today leaked drafts of planned executive actions showed that president Trump apparently intends to issue an order suspending (and possibly permanently banning) entry  to the U.S. of citizens of seven countries:  Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. As Scott Aaronson points out, one consequence of this is that students from these countries would not be able to study or do research in U.S. universities.

The U.S. has mostly known to separate its treatment of foreign governments from its treatment of their citizens, whether it is Cubans, Russians, or other cases. Based on the past records, the danger of terrorism by lawful visitors to the U.S. from the seven countries above is slim to none. But over the years, visitors and immigrants from these countries did contribute immensely to the U.S. society, economy, and the scientific world at large.

We personally have collaborated and built on the scientific works of colleagues from these countries. In particular, both of us are originally from Israel, but have collaborated with scientists from Iran who knew that the issues between the two governments should not stop scientific cooperation.

This new proposed policy is not just misguided, but also directly contradicts the interests of the U.S., and the advancement of science. We call on all our fellow scientists to express their strong  disagreement with it, and their solidarity and gratitude for the contributions of visiting and immigrant scientists, without which the U.S., and the state of human knowledge, would not have been the same.

34 thoughts on “Immigration ban is antithetical to scientific progress

  1. The Iran exclusion is done to arm twist Iran’s regime to end their nuclear program. What you do not know is that Iran is the new emerging Saudi Arabia of global terror funding.

    1. Like I said, I think the U.S. has a long tradition of separating the behavior of governments from the treatment of its citizens, and in fact has in the past particularly welcomed immigrants from nations such as Cuba or Russia that it was in conflict with.

      This new order will mostly harm individual Iranians that are already in the U.S. as well as U.S. universities and global scientific collaborations as future talented students will go to Canada, Europe, and Asia but be unable to travel to the U.S.

      I have no insight into the inner workings of Iran but I fail to see how this particular action will cause any meaningful negative impact or change the behavior’s of Iran’s rulers.

    2. Speaking of which, where is Saudi Arabia in this list? Do you really believe that this is motivated by reasons of national security rather than internal politics? I believe that it is wrong from every possible angle.

  2. You say that the regulations will hurt science in the US.
    Can you name or identify CS students from Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen in recent years?

    I believe there are none, but I have no concrete evidence for this.

    1. I didn’t do a census and typically don’t keep careful track of the countries of origin and country of citizenship (that are not always the same thing) of students. I’ve read an estimate that approximately 1,500 students from Iran received PhD’s in the U.S. from the last three years. One prominent computer scientist that comes to mind from the other countries is Syrian-American Dina Katabi from MIT.

      1. Yes, many Iranians study in the US. I was asking about Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen which are the majority of countries Trump admin has stalled visas from.
        Dina Katabi is a good example, though she is probably an exception.

      2. I would add that it is not a question of numbers. The scientific community transcends boarders and nationalities. Just as much as there cannot be Omer first or Boaz first there cannot be America first when it comes to scientific progress. The power of academia in the u.s comes from embracing this openness and inclusiveness. The moment we exclude individuals based on their origin we will not be able to serve as the international hub that we are.

    2. > Can you name or identify CS students from {set of countries} in recent years?

      1) I’m not sure why the answer to this question matters to the point at hand. We know that brilliant scientists come from all walks of life and essentially all countries.

      2) It’s hard to answer this. Many of the best students from these countries will come to the community via universities in other countries (France or Germany, for example), so their citizenship won’t be obvious from reading their papers or CV’s. (And again, why insist on it?)

      I agree with Omer and Boaz on this. My research group has a number of directly affected students. They are justifiably worried about their future. Their departure would be a real loss to the community.

    3. I think Nikhil Srivastava might be from Libya. (As others have said, it’s not like we study people’s nationalities very carefully.) I know he at least lived in Libya for quite some time as a child.

  3. An additional point: The visa ban will make it even harder to organize scientific conferences — holding them inside the US will exclude foreign scientists, and holding them outside the US will make it impossible for many US researchers to attend (this is already a problem to some extent because visa procedures are onerous — but until the proposed executive order goes into affect, at least they can be overcome in principle).

    We really need to find a conference venue on the US-Canadian border, with half of the lecture room in one country and half in the other…

  4. We already cannot attend conferences outside US because of our visa status. I personally have a paper in Europe but I cannot attend the conference to present it. We cannot go back to Iran to visit our families, but at least we had hope that they could come visit us (Though the visa process was still hard on Iranians). This is totally insane. I have not seen my family in two years and it seems that I cannot see them again for another 4 years. I don’t even consider myself a Muslim, which is ironic, since back in Iran we had problems with the government because we weren’t good Muslims, and now here because we they know us as Muslims!

  5. Firstly, this is a straw man argument: Trump is not suggesting completely shutting down immigration from the named countries, but putting it on hold until a robust vetting procedure is implemented. Secondly, for people who think for a living, this is a very simplistic argument. Yes, there are downsides to restricting immigration. But there are also upsides (security being an important one). There is also a continuum of responses (shut immigration down completely being on one end, open the borders on the other). Where on the continuum the US wants to be depends on a careful cost benefit analysis.

    1. A careful cost benefit analysis? Do you really believe that this is what’s going on here? And I thought it is a populist political move that goes against the recommendation of national security experts as being unnecessary given the robust vetting already in place, serving as another recruitment tool for isis. I may be wrong, I’m not an expert. What I do know is that our responsibility is to stand with our students, to stand with our colleagues, to represent the scientific community.

      1. I don’t know what is going on, to answer your question, but I know what is necessary (the cost benefit analysis whereof I speak). I don’t know what you are talking about (about robust vetting), but the frequency of terror attacks has jumped greatly over the last several years, and it seems clear that importing hostile ideology is at least partly responsible. So, there is a benefit to Trump’s policy. What the cost is I cannot fully judge, and neither can you, but if all of us think about it, we can contribute to intelligent discource.

        As “What I do know is that our responsibility is to stand with our students, to stand with our colleagues, to represent the scientific community” – I am not in the Komsomol, never was, and never want to be, and what you say reminds me of the kind of slogans I heard in my Soviet youth. I am part of the scientific community – you don’t represent me, and I don’t want you to. Similarly, I don’t know what “stand with our students” means. If you mean “some of my students are Iranian, and they are not happy about this”, then say it. Some of my students are Jewish, and they ARE happy about it. So, no slogans, please.

      2. No one is advocating open borders and the current situation is very different from that, with a pretty thorough vetting of visa candidates (and indeed, while no system is 100% secure, terrorist acts by visa holding visitors since 9/11 have been very rare). Nevertheless, if the action called for increased vetting of visitors then we would not have objected to it. Rather this is a blanket ban on entry for people based on their national origin, with conditions for lifting the ban that depend on cooperation by governments that have no incentive to do so.

        There is no evidence that this will help security and every evidence that it will hurt science, the American society, and many law abiding and productive visitors and immigrants.

      3. I am reacting to events in the real world rather than some idealistic implausible interpretation that is inconsistent with the evidence in front of us. I also do not speak in the name of anyone (definitely not in your name as I do not even know it). I do have the right and responsibility to speak for my community as I see fit. Others may disagree. They can speak up too. This is still a democracy. Finally, please do not drag Judaism into this filth. Plenty of Jews on the other side.

      4. If you are dragging antisemitism into this you should be especially sensitive to the ruling class directing widespread abstract fears towards the defenseless and blameless few. This EO turns my stomach.

      5. @Udi, I don’t believe Trump’s admin represents the “ruling class”, neither do the 140 million people who are banned from entering the US now are “defenseless and blameless few”. I believe on the contrary, that Muslim civilization, as a whole, is powerful, on the rise, and constitutes an aggressive “majority” group in today’s world, while old traditional Western culture is on retreat, and thus its members belong to a “minority group” in some sense.

        I believe Trump’s EO is reasonable, though not optimal. I do acknowledge the fact that many good and blameless scholars are going to get hurt by it. But I’m not sure it is something completely new. There are a lot of hurdles to succeed academically, and much more so for foreigners. This just puts one more hurdle on an already very difficult path.

  6. I personally think one reaction could be moving all (yes literally all) science conferences out of US for the year of 2017. I think all scientists agree this ban is horrible and we have the power to react. It will be all over the news and he will need to react to Science moving overseas.

    1. The problem is then that many foreign students currently inside the US would not be able to return to the US if they attended those conferences. This new policy means there is no single location that one can organize a conference and have it be accessible to all Iranian-citizen researchers.

      1. Great idea. It clearly won’t solve the problem for some US-based foreign academics, but it would be a strong statement. I would support having all academic conferences, not only in science, that were previously intended to be in the US, as well as all such conferences that are planned for the future, to be moved to Mexico or Canada until the executive order is rescinded.

      2. I don’t know what is the best course of action but have significant doubts that any action like that would make a difference for this adminstration.

        Donating to organizations such as the ACLU and others may be the most effective approach.

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