These Climate Scientists’ Lives Were Upended by Trump’s Immigration Order

In a world dependent on international cooperation, President Trump's executive order upset lives, careers and drew a rebuke from universities.

Protests broke out around the world after President Trump announced the travel ban on Muslims
Donald Trump's order banning people from nine predominantly Muslim countries sparked protests, and had wide impact on the science community. Credit: Getty Images

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When climate scientist Mike MacFerrin first heard about President Trump’s executive order banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S., he realized it might prevent a fellow glaciologist from joining a research trip to study Greenland’s melting ice sheet.

Samira Samimi, a first-year PhD student at the University of Alberta in Calgary, had no idea she might be affected personally until MacFerrin called her on Saturday morning. He explained that it wasn’t clear if Samimi—who’s Iranian and a permanent resident of Canada—could now get clearance to board the U.S. Air National Guard plane that flies the scientists to their research site in Greenland.

MacFerrin shared the news in a profanity-laced tweet.

Another Iranian researcher whose life was abruptly upended said she and her husband want to move to Canada. She works in the U.S., and the couple had both applied for green cards to become permanent residents. But now, she said, “We really feel unwanted.” She requested anonymity for fear of a hostile backlash.

These are just two cases involving climate scientists who have discussed their plights with InsideClimate News. Certainly many more are in the same straits.

It’s an example of how Trump’s executive order has so deeply shaken the scientific community, which relies on international cooperation. According to the Washington Post, about one-fifth of the scientists in the U.S. are immigrants. There are no clear numbers on how many come from the seven listed countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—because scientific organizations do not track researchers by nationality.

Universities and science advocacy groups such as the American Geophysical Union swiftly condemned the ban. Some researchers are stranded in their home countries, unable to return to the U.S. to continue their education, while others are afraid to leave the U.S. on professional or personal trips, for fear they won’t be able to come back.

“The Executive Order on Friday appeared to me a stunning violation of our deepest American values: the values of a nation of immigrants: fairness, equality, openness, generosity, courage,” L. Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a letter to the MIT community on Monday. “In a nation made rich by immigrants, why would we signal to the world that we no longer welcome new talent?… I encourage anyone who shares that view to work constructively to improve the situation.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Samimi said. “We are in the 21st century and I expect this planet to be more civilized, if that’s the right word for it.”

Samimi said she hadn’t come to grips with the potential loss of the expedition, which forms the crux of her PhD research project. “That’s my four-year plan for my whole PhD,” she said.

“It’s absurd,” said MacFerrin, a graduate student at the University of Colorado-Boulder who is almost finished with his PhD.

MacFerrin said there are six researchers on the Greenland team, and they expect to fly there in mid-April for a month. “Our team is small enough that we can’t readily afford to cut anyone from the team last-minute,” he said in an email.

The NASA-funded project uses sensors to measure how quickly the firn—fallen snow that eventually becomes ice—compresses into the ice sheet. Those measurements are crucial for calculating how melting ice contributes to sea level rise.

During last year’s Greenland expedition, Samimi left an instrument that measures the firn’s water content. This year, she plans to calibrate and maintain the instrument so it continues operating. Because Samimi customized the instrument, adjusting the wiring and code to optimize the measurements, no one else can do the work, she said.

The Greenland team usually meets in New York before leaving in an Air National Guard plane, which is necessary to carry their equipment and land safely on the ice. MacFerrin said the researchers rent the plane through the National Science Foundation. He said Samimi may be able to get around the travel ban by meeting the team in Europe instead of in New York, but even then, he’s not sure if she’ll be able to fly in a military plane.

This ban is not only upsetting, but it constitutes a “brain drain” for the scientific community, MacFerrin said. Wired reported that the executive order had already inspired international scientists to favor jobs in Europe or Canada.

It will also cost American taxpayers. The U.S.-based Iranian climate scientist who requested anonymity said she and her husband have received about $1 million total from NASA and other federal agencies over the years to fund their PhD and post-doctorate research and salaries. They had been looking forward to getting new jobs, she said, but “now that it’s our chance to give back and contribute, we have to leave the country.”

Still, she said her education gives her options to go abroad, unlike the refugees who have been barred from entering the U.S. and have nowhere else to go.

Samimi said the situation reminds her of the fear she felt in Iran, where “all my life I had this fear [for] my future, my freedom. I worried about my human rights, about everything.” When she moved to Canada, and especially after she got her green card, that fear disappeared—until now, she said. “As a PhD student, as someone who wants to help our planet…I’m shocked that I have to go back and experience the same thing. It feels like time is going backwards.”