June 25, 2020

Protecting international participation in U.S. STEM research

Posted by Caroline Gleason

By Emily Orzechowski and Caroline Gleason, AGU’s Spring 2020 Public Affairs Interns


We demand better for our community and for the future of our society and the planet. Together, we can build a thriving, sustainable and equitable future for all.”  Read AGU’s From the Prow statement here.  

The policy landscape around recent and expected executive orders on immigration is rapidly evolving. Here, we provide a recap of the issues at stake as well as AGU’s positions and participation in related discussions. For more information, check out our Twitter, @AGUSciPolicy, or look to AIP FYI for regular updates. 


On 21 MayAGU signed onto multi-scientific society letter calling on the White House to “prioritize the immigration of science and technology talent that will spur the scientific breakthroughs and economic growth of the United States that is needed for rapid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.” And further stating that America’s STEM enterprise will deliver “our safety and return to daily activities following the COVID-19 outbreak,” and that “limiting immigration to the United States reduces our ability to attract the best available minds to this endeavor.”  

This joint letter was written in response to a proclamation restricting immigration to the United States, issued on 22 April by President TrumpThe proclamation directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to conduct a review of nonimmigrant visa programs for additional restrictions. The resulting recommendations from DHS have not yet been released to the public, but reports indicate that they may include several programs critical to the health of the US STEM enterpriseTwo of the visa programs apparently under scrutiny are H-1B visas (which allow US employerto hire professionals born outside the US through visa sponsorships) and F-1 visas/ the Optional Practical Training Program (student visa program, which later permits “employment for practical training” for international students following the completion of their course of study at a US institution).  

Since the 22 April proclamation, President Trump has announced two sets of additional restrictions on immigrationOn 29 May, President Trump issued a proclamation suspended nonimmigrant entry of “certain students and researchers” from China. This proclamation is predicated on “allegations that the Chinese government uses a variety of means to misappropriate U.S. science and technology from companies and universities.” (AIP) The restrictions apply to individuals seeking entry on F and J visas – student and cultural or educational exchange visa programs respectively – and exempts Chinese students who are coming to the US for undergraduate study.  

President Trump announced a third proclamation on 22 June suspending the issuance of new green cards and various nonimmigrant visas, including a controversial halt of the H-1B skilled worker visa program. Despite reports of considered rollbacks, the OPT program has not been affected. 

The scientific community, including AGU, is concerned about the recent scaling back H-1B visas and  restrictions to F-1 visas, as well as the OPT Program and about what these actions will mean for the scientific communityOPT in particular provides crucial pathway for international graduates of U.S. colleges and universities to remain in the U.S. for up to three years to work in their field of study. The majority of OPT participants work in STEM fields and the program is a key instrument for attracting, cultivating and keeping international STEM talent in the U.S.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E) announced 6 July that students on F-1 visas would only be allowed to remain in the U.S. if their academic institutions offered in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 academic year. Moreover, in STEM fields like engineering and computer science, international students comprise over 50% of Ph.D. recipientsloss of this talent could significantly impede scientific progress at a time when we need it most.  

The scientific community is not alone in our concerns about the proposed cutbacks. Over 324 industry employers and organizations released a letter on 20 May speaking against the artificial constraints on the STEM workforce imposed by the executive orderAmong many arguments for the economic necessity of protecting these nonimmigrant programs, the letter cites a December 2018 report by Business Roundtable which describes a tangible negative impact to the US economy should OPT participation be reduced. 

These proclamations are clear reminders that anti-Chinese, and more broadly anti-Asian, stigmatization and discrimination have been on the rise since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on immigration are just a part of what Asian scientists around the world have been facing, as discussed in a recent joint AGU letter and in a Senate resolution introduced 14 May by Senators Harris, Duckworth and Hirono 

AGU members are also taking action to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive STEM workforce during our virtual advocacy days, which focus on three key U.S. bills promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM: the Combatting Sexual Harassment in Science Act, the STEM Opportunities Act and the Rural STEM Education ActThe event is currently underwaybut you can still take action by urging your representatives to support these bills through social media. Check out our Twitter, @AGUSciPolicy, for more information on how to participate.