Open Letter to the U.S. Federal Government Regarding COVID-19 Travel Restrictions

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For the attention of the U.S. Federal Government,

We, as immigrant and non-immigrant researchers affiliated with academic and non-academic institutions across the U.S., hope to highlight the current circumstances that put thousands of international students, postdoctoral scholars, junior faculty, and researchers at an unprecedented level of unease and discomfort.

In March 2020, at the beginning of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, former U.S. President Donald Trump temporarily banned non-citizens from entering the U.S. through a Presidential Proclamation. This order was originally set to expire in January 2021. Based on the immature scientific understanding and limited control of SARS-CoV-2 at that time, the travel ban was arguably a prudent act aimed at fighting the immediate public health emergency.

On January 21st 2021 the current U.S. President Joseph Biden signed Proclamation 10143 [1] perpetuating the entry limitations. The directive begins as follows (emphasis added):

 “The Federal Government must act swiftly and aggressively to combat coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).The national emergency caused by the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States continues to pose a grave threat to our health and security.  As of January 20, 2021, the United States had experienced more than 24 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 400,000 COVID-19 deaths.  It is the policy of my Administration to implement SCIENCE-BASED PUBLIC HEALTH MEASURES, across all areas of the Federal Government, to prevent further spread of the disease.”

The proclamation then continues (again, emphasis added):

   “Suspension and Limitation on Entry.  (a)  The entry into the United States, as IMMIGRANTS OR NONIMMIGRANTS, of noncitizens, who were physically present within the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom (excluding overseas territories outside of Europe), the Republic of Ireland, and the Federative Republic of Brazil during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States, is hereby suspended and limited subject to section 2 of this proclamation.[…]”.

The list of countries affected in the same manner by other Presidential Proclamations also includes India, China, and Iran.

Since January, continuous and strenuous scientific and medical research efforts resulted in significant advances in testing, tracing, vaccine distribution, and a steady decrease in new cases, allowing for the safe reopening of international travel. Despite these changes, to date, the government has not provided either a specific date, nor a specific target (e.g. 70% of vaccinated individuals in the US) as to when these travel restrictions will be lifted. This is causing additional stress and uncertainty to the individuals affected by the Proclamation. 

Remarkably, such a “science-based” approach does not apply to certain categories of entrants, including U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and F-1 or M-1 visa-holding students (while it does apply, for instance, to J-1 students and H-1B Specialty Occupation Visa holders).

It has recently been estimated that 51% of the postdoctoral researcher population spread across 351 academic and non-academic institutions based in the U.S. are represented by non-U.S. citizens [2]. In a year characterized by strong movements founded on inclusion and diversity, and equality of rights, and with the inauguration of a President looking to reverse his predecessor’s War on Science, we believe that international scholars are disproportionately and unfairly affected by these restrictions and are facing a discriminatory situation. Successful vaccination campaigns are underway in many of the affected countries, with several of them at pace with, or exceeding, the vaccination rate of the U.S. Yet, while ever-more countries reopen their borders to the U.S., these freedoms are not reciprocated. Under the Presidential Proclamations, U.S. citizens or green card holders are now able to travel for leisure with few restrictions, and no constraints regarding re-entering the U.S..

Strikingly, students holding F-1 or M-1 visas are not subject to the proclamation and are therefore able to travel internationally. While we do understand the economic boon that international students provide for academic institutions, there is no scientific rationale behind their privilege which further discriminates against, for instance, international postdoctoral scholars or students holding J-1 visas. In the academic and non-academic research landscapes, international scholars contribute substantially to both academic and non-academic research output and prestige. Additionally, we provide mentorship to students, a strategic future asset for the country’s innovation potential.

The only solution we are offered to circumvent travel restrictions is to obtain a so-called National Interest Exception (NIE) from one of the U.S. embassies or consular posts abroad. As of today, few select categories of essential workers are eligible to be granted a NIE, posing the risk that current skilled researchers, granted a visa to work in the U.S., may even be unable to obtain a NIE to (re)enter the country. Even if deemed eligible, the NIE process is cumbersome. Currently, consular posts can take up to 60 business days – nearly three months in real time – to reply to an applicant’s request, the approval rate is highly uncertain, and the final outcome depends on the arbitrary discretion of a particular consulate. Additionally, some visa types are subject to further complicating restrictions; for example, most J-1 visa holders are not allowed to leave the U.S. soil for more than 30 consecutive days, with few exceptions. However, since a NIE request cannot be submitted until the applicant is out of the U.S., it is impossible to pursue the opportunity of obtaining it without endangering our work and related immigrant status. The inadequacy of the NIE process becomes even more evident if one considers that an average postdoc has between 15 and 20 days of holidays per year.

The majority of us international scholars have not been able to visit families or significant others for over a year due to these restrictions, with an indefinite wait ahead.  This situation is now impinging on this community’s mental health since many individuals are facing the choice between attending important personal matters (childbirths, weddings, and funerals of close friends and family) and the security of their job and immigration status in the country where they have established their lives. We can leave the country but have no guarantee of being allowed to return to our careers, in roles that significantly contribute to the research, teaching, and service mission of our U.S. institutions.

As stated by the CDC, fully vaccinated people, regardless of their citizenship or visa status and still respectful of current safety guidelines, are less likely to pose additional risk in the spreading of COVID-19, even in the event of international travel.

Furthermore, through the implementation of the safety guidelines and the successful vaccination campaign, a majority (if not all) universities are resuming normal activities: faculty, students and postdoctoral scholars can freely and safely return to campuses. Nevertheless, research efforts are being put at risk as many colleagues and mentors are forsaken overseas.

With this letter we hope to draw attention to the plight of noncitizen researchers trapped in the US or stranded abroad, uniquely and unfairly constrained by current U.S. entry restrictions.

What is the scientific basis of forcing international researchers to choose between their loved ones and their careers?

We appreciate and thank you in advance for your time and availability, and hope you will help us in advocating for our rights as lawful individuals.

Yours truly,

The Tufts Postdoctoral Association with the participation of the undersigned international postdoctoral scholars / researchers / Postdoctoral Associations and Principal Investigators.

(All individuals below have signed this letter as private individuals and not on behalf of their institutions)

[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/25/proclamation-on-the-suspension-of-entry-as-immigrants-and-non-immigrants-of-certain-additional-persons-who-pose-a-risk-of-transmitting-coronavirus-disease

[2] McConnell S.C. et al., eLife 2018;7:e40189 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.40189

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