How To Talk To Your Friends And Family About The Immigration Ban

By Sean McClory

When I first heard the news of the executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim majority countries I immediately felt sadness and anger. I felt sadness for the Somali undergrad I had mentored at Ohio State. I felt anger for the Iranian postdocs I worked with at Penn. In that initial moment, I did not feel sadness for the Syrian refugees dreaming of sleeping under a roof not destroyed by bombs or anger for the Iraqi interpreters who had risked their lives to work with American soldiers. I would feel for them later, when I had read their stories and thought carefully about the sweeping unfairness of the rule. But in that first moment, the people I felt for were those I knew, those I cared about, and those whom I knew worked incredibly hard every day to advance biomedical science in this country.

As a white, natural born, US citizen who grew up in the middle of Ohio, there were other people I thought about too in those first few moments. People who, while we politely avoid the subject around the Thanksgiving table, likely voted for a different presidential candidate than I did. People, who, despite our political differences, I love dearly. What would I say to those people next time I visited? Those people who had not spent their entire adult lives working with brilliant, dedicated scientists from around the world. Those people who did not did not understand how immigrants come to the United States to make discoveries that help cure cancer and treat diabetes.

As a scientist, I pride myself in being able to support my conclusions with evidence, and evidence abounds indicating that the recent executive order, as well as similarly restrictive immigration policy, will damage US science. Immigrants make up a large and growing share of the STEM workforce in the US. According to data from the American Community Survey in 2014 52% of biomedical scientists in the US were foreign born (https://goo.gl/TMrKU5). Those immigrant scientists have produced scientific advancements that have improved US health and the US economy. Since 2000, 35 percent of Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and medicine awarded to US scientists went to immigrants in the US (https://goo.gl/6cnjVQ). The recent executive order directly impacts the productivity of scientist in the US from the seven targeted countries and indirectly impacts US immigrant scientists from other countries who now question the stability provided by their immigration status (https://goo.gl/XrGNBy, https://goo.gl/SgBn5W, & https://goo.gl/xIMGkw). Politicians should carefully weigh this data when considering changes to US immigration policy, particularly pertaining to student and guest worker visa programs. Biomedical research in the US relies on talented immigrants, and restricting the ability of US research institutions to recruit foreign talent will harm biomedical science, ultimately making the US less healthy and reducing economic growth.

Politics is not like science. In science, we rely on data and rational reasoning to come to conclusions. In politics, we more often rely on emotional judgements and intuitions. There are rational arguments in politics, seemingly reasoned debates for both sides of complex issues. But social scientists, such as Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman, have shown experimentally that when humans encounter an issue they make immediate emotional judgements, then use their rational reasoning, not to reassess their initial judgment, but to create carefully constructed arguments for why they were right in the first place. Even when presented with obvious counter-arguments refuting their emotional judgment and contrived justification, people far more often create new arguments to support their conclusion rather than reconsider their thinking. People do change their minds, and evidence and reason are useful in helping spur that change, but most often changing a mind requires connecting with the emotional center that made the judgement in the first place.

Here within the liberal bubble of Philadelphia, it is easy to misunderstand the beliefs of those across the political aisle. Those people I know and love certainly hold beliefs that are xenophobic, but not because they wish to be horrible, rather it is because they fear the potential of terrorist attacks. These fears are refutable with data on the demographics of actual terrorists – immigrants from the 6 named countries have not carried out a single fatal terrorist attack in the United States (https://goo.gl/ZYnaMI). However, this data will win no political debate. The horror of 9/11 and the toxic media environment that followed it has made terrorism a particularly salient fear for many Americans. Therefore, it is more effective to argue for the benefits of immigration that resonate with all Americans, and to argue against the consequences of the executive order that will harm institutions that are important to American life. And here is where you, us, the biomedical science community, have the ability to change people’s minds about this incredibly questionable policy.

US citizens of all political faiths support biomedical science, both rationally and emotionally. They support biomedical science because they have participated in a Komen run or autism walk where they celebrate the “heroes” that work every day to develop better treatments for breast cancer and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Or they support research because their loved one made it onto a clinical trial that ended up saving their life. In this era of rigid partisanship, the 21st Century Cures Act passed both houses of congress with 94% approval. We may not feel like “heroes” after re-probing that western blot for the third time, but the work we do as biomedical scientists is important, and it is important to people throughout this country.

The bipartisan support for biomedical science is an opportunity for us in the scientific community to influence public opinion. I urge all of you in the community to speak to your friends and family, particularly those who may be undecided about direction of US immigration policy. As scientists, you will want to make arguments that are fact based, but remember that those arguments also need to be emotionally convincing. Consider the following points when discussing the immigration ban:

  • Stay positive. Instead of refuting potential threats posed by terrorism, stress the contributions of immigrants, particularly to biomedical sciences.
  • Give personal examples of immigrant biomedical scientists. In this issue of the newsletter we present the stories of several Penn scientists who were directly impacted by the travel ban. No names are necessary, but say that you know researchers at Penn whose work to cure devastating diseases was hindered by the executive order.
  • Reassure them that scientists are thoroughly vetted before traveling to the United States. The visa approval process typically takes months during which applicants are subjected to background checks, biometric screening and personal interviews conducted by the US State Department. The slightest doubt raised during this process will result in a visa denial.
  • Consider how this ban might harm US citizens. Cancer kills nearly 600,000 people in the US every year, and nearly everyone knows a cancer victim. If we discourage talented foreign scientists from coming to the US, how many US citizens will die if it takes longer to find a cure?
  • All Americans disdain hard work being scuttled by the bureaucratic red tape. To the point that “the ban is only temporary”, consider that, both in academia and industry science, work needs to be done in a timely manner. In our interviews, we spoke to a professor who had offered a position to a foreign scientist, days before the executive order. The professor worried that if the long visa approval process could only begin in three months, she would miss her progress report goals and the entire project might be in jeopardy.

In our current political climate, debates often involve politicians speaking past one another, using arguments designed to activate the partisan base rather than to convince the other side. However, this issue is too important to divide us down the middle. After an incredibly contentious election it may be hard to consider bipartisan arguments. But biomedical science is a bipartisan issue – the diseases we fight to cure afflict us all, regardless of politics. Americans are divided on the immigration executive order, however, polling from Quinnipiac University suggest that support for the immigration ban has weakened since the rule went into effect (https://goo.gl/YG3rO5), suggesting that Americans are becoming less supportive as they learn of the rule’s collateral damage. This is a time when we have the ability to influence public opinion. By speaking out and emphasizing how the immigration executive order impacts issues important to all Americans, you can make a difference.

 

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