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Immigration Policies Affect Postdoctoral Scholars
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Jared Tur


Many foreign nationals currently working as scientists in the United States on visas have expressed concern over the current political administration and developing policies around immigration. This particularly prominent at universities and research facilities that employ postdoctoral scholars. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2015, the number of postdoctoral appointees in science, engineering, and health exceeded 63,000. Of that, more than 35,000 are currently on visas. Therefore, visa and immigration policies are critical to the future of scientific research and development.


Currently, two of the most common visas for postdoctoral scholars are J-1 and H-1B. J-1 visas provide foreign nationals with exchange opportunities in research for up to three years, while H-1B visas are issued for temporary employment and allows for up to six years of work. H-1B visas often require an advanced degree, such as a PhD, and can be issued to foreign postdocs. For FY2018, the Congressionally mandated H-1B regular cap was set at 65,000. The exemption to the cap for individuals with advanced degrees (H-1B Master’s exemption) was set at 20,000. Similar to previous years, the regular cap was reached within ten days after the submission process was opened, and the Master’s exemption cap was reached within five days. Additional applications for FY2018 must now go through a lottery system in order to obtain an H-1B visa.


However, universities and nonprofit research facilities qualify for cap-exemption and can employ an unlimited number of qualified workers. In FY2015, more than 30,000 H-1B visas were approved for institutions of higher education, affiliated nonprofits, and nonprofit or governmental research organizations. While current policy has not altered the H-1B visa process, President Trump has directed agencies to follow a “Buy American, Hire American” policy, which aims to cut down on H-1B fraud and increase overall scrutiny of both initial and renewal applications for H-1B visas. In January 2017, Senator Chuck Grassley introduced a bill that would update the current H1-B lottery system to a preference system that would favor foreign students educated in the United States, those with advanced degrees, and those with valuable skills.


In addition to visa policies, foreign nationals from selected countries may face additional hurdles. The “travel ban” is now in its third iteration, which now aims to restrict travel and immigration from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea. A federal judge in Hawaii ordered a nationwide freezing order just days before the ban was to take effect. The original executive order issued in January impacted foreign postdocs, including incidents of H-1B visa holders prevented from entering the United States. This ban was the start to President Trump’s vow to increase immigration scrutiny, with a further pledge to revamp the H-1B visa system.


Plans for immigration reform have not stopped with visas, but are also setting sights on permanent residency. The RAISE Act—introduced by Senators Tom Cotton and David Purdue in February and backed by President Trump in August—would instate a “merit” system focusing on skills, education, and language ability rather than relations with individuals already in the United States. The bill would reduce the number of individuals granted legal residency by 41 percent. Many have begun to speculate on the impacts this change would have on the current immigration system and who in particular may be affected.


In just ten months, there have been multiple executive orders, proclamations, program reviews, and introduced legislation, as well as judicial intervention, surrounding immigration to and residency in the United States. Many effects and outcomes remain to be defined. However, many changes that have been proposed or enacted have potential for direct and indirect impact on the postdoctoral community.


Jared Tur, PhD, is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of South Florida.


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