The Iranian scientist heard that her American visa had been revoked from newspaper reporters Wednesday afternoon.
The news came after Samira Asgari had spent 12 years training as a biomedical scientist, two months trying to secure a work visa to take a research job in the United States, and six days hoping that the Trump administration would recognize that visa and let her fly to Boston in spite of its travel ban.
But the US State Department quietly revoked visas Friday of all travelers from the seven countries targeted by the president’s immigration executive order, leaving Asgari stranded in a friend’s apartment in Switzerland, and wondering why she had received no official notice of the action. “It’s so frustrating,” she said.
Friday was when President Trump signed an executive order barring the entry of anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Asgari’s native Iran. But the revocations weren’t disclosed until late Tuesday.
A number of legal challenges were filed against the president’s action. One led to a court order issued by federal judges in Boston on Saturday night, which put Trump’s ban on hold for seven days and should have allowed visa holders like Asgari to come in through Logan International Airport.
But when she tried to fly to Boston, first from Germany on Saturday and then from Switzerland on Tuesday, the airlines refused to let her board.
A State Department official told STAT that it revoked the visas at the request of the Department of Homeland Security, adding that the action was “provisional” and applied only to those visa holders from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen who were outside of the country.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, could not say whether that information had been shared with the affected travelers.
The Boston Globe reported Thursday that Asgari filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Trump, the Department of Homeland Security, and Customs and Border Protection officials.
Dr. Soumya Raychaudhuri, the genomics researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who recruited Asgari to come work in his lab, said the administration seemed to be in violation of the Boston federal court order. “If that is the case, that makes me really worried both for Samira but also for the state of collaboration between the judicial and the executive branch.”
A spokesperson for the Customs and Border Protection agency, which is a branch of Homeland Security, declined to discuss the revocations. “Anything passport-related comes from the State Department,” he said. “They issue passports; all we do is read ‘em.”
Already, the scientific and medical community is up in arms about the executive order. On Wednesday, leaders at seven major academic medical centers published a perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine saying that the consequences on health care “are far-reaching and damaging.” They noted that over 100 employees of Massachusetts-based Partners HealthCare, which includes the Brigham as well as Massachusetts General Hospital, were directly affected by the ban because they are from the affected countries — including at least 20 who were applying for visas or preparing to travel to the US.
Asgari is one of them.
She was supposed to begin a postdoctoral fellowship this week. Her research would involve analyzing genetic data from South American tuberculosis patients, in the hope of discovering why some of them get sick and become contagious while others have immune systems strong enough to keep the bug in check.
Asgari had impressed Raychaudhuri with a talk she gave last May at the prestigious Biology of Genomes conference, and he had begun recruiting her around then. Her track record was stellar.
She grew up in Kerman, in southeastern Iran, and moved to Tehran at 18 to study biotechnology. She finds lab work “intellectually entertaining,” she said in a telephone interview from Lausanne, Switzerland. She spent her summers as a student researching how stem cells could help patients with liver fibrosis, and crunching massive amounts of data on genetic disorders. In 2010, she and a few friends even set about translating a textbook on bioinformatics from English to Farsi in whatever free time they had between classes.
“At the time, the whole field was new, but especially in Iran, there were not many good Farsi resources … for bachelor’s students, it is not easy to read in English,” she said.
Her translation was published in 2012 by the National Institute of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. She has spent the last five and a half years earning her PhD and doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
“A lab like Soumya’s is the best a postdoc can hope for,” she said. “This research is so worth doing. Tuberculosis is a present threat. … Even in the developed world, you are getting more and more strains that are resistant to antibiotics.”
She applied for her US visa in Switzerland on Nov. 30. She got a positive response on Jan. 25 and sent off her passport right away to have the visa inserted.
“I read in the news about the draft of the executive order, and I wanted to go as soon as I could go,” she said.
On Friday, to speed up the process, she drove more than 60 miles to pick up her passport, sending messages of celebration to her lab-mates in Lausanne. The order was signed in the late afternoon in Washington, D.C. — around midnight in Switzerland —but Asgari thought she was safe because she had a visa.
The next day, when she was about to board a flight from Frankfurt to Boston, a red light flashed, and she was not allowed onto the plane. She had given up her apartment in Lausanne; her boyfriend had given up his job to accompany her.
Because of the court order blocking Trump’s travel ban, Asgari figured she should still be able to fly to Massachusetts. To make sure, she began calling airlines including Air France, Lufthansa, Swiss, United, British Airways.
“They were surprised,” she said. “If you ask, ‘I am an Iranian and I have a valid visa can I travel?,’ they say yes, and I say, ‘Are you sure? Because I have been returned from a Lufthansa flight,’ and then they call their manager.”
She eventually settled on a Swiss airlines flight at 5:25 on Tuesday evening.
“They were repeating the same sentence, ‘Our system has not been updated,’” she said. “That is pretty much the answer I got from all of the airlines, even Swiss airlines. They called me the same morning to say they will not allow me on board, but still I went, because I wanted to make sure, I still had hope.”
She checked in, checked her bag, got through security. But even though she showed the airline agents the Boston federal court order, the recommendation they got from US Customs and Border Protection was not to let her board, she said.
A Swiss airline spokeswoman told STAT Wednesday evening, “We are aware of the legal decision, the one that was taken in Massachusetts … and we do follow the development, but Swiss is not in the position to evaluate the consequences of individual legal decisions on executive orders or on individual passengers.” She added, “As an airline, we follow the US Customs and Border Protection recommendations, and if we don’t get a green light from CBP, there is no margin of action that we have.”
On Wednesday evening, Asgari was trying to figure out what to do next. “To me it feels like I’m always one step behind. I’m doing my best and I am one step behind,” she said. “What’s the plan now? I don’t know, I frankly don’t know. … I don’t think this whole situation will be resolved anytime soon. Maybe I have to start thinking about other plans.”
She was still waiting to hear whether anyone besides journalists would give her news about her visa.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong date for the State Department visa revocations.