Throughout the history of America, immigrants have been welcomed to its shores. Many Americans recount their family’s immigrant history with pride — mine came from Ireland and Italy.
Our nation’s medical and science communities have benefited from inclusive immigration policies. We are the global leader in medical education, biomedical research, and patient care because we attract and welcome the best and brightest minds from across the world. Our international doctoral students, medical students, residents, fellows, and postdocs enrich our research programs, medical training programs, and teaching hospitals.
While many of them return to their countries of origin, some stay in the United States to make important contributions to our health and well-being.
President Trump’s executive order on immigration greatly concerns leaders in academic medicine. My colleagues and I keenly appreciate the need to safeguard the United States against terrorists, but the broad-brush approach of the immigration ban — and the uncertainty around it — is casting a pall over the hopes and opportunities of many deserving physicians and scientists.
It’s an unsettling story. Take the case of Suha Amin Abdullah Abushamma, a physician from Sudan who graduated at the top of her class and who works as a resident at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Abushamma, who has an H-1B visa, was deported when she tried to return to the US after visiting family in Saudi Arabia, even though a federal judge had previously ruled that no one holding a valid visa would be deported under the president’s executive order.
Late Friday, the order was blocked by a federal judge in Seattle, citing “no support” for the government’s argument that “we have to protect the U.S. from individuals from these countries.” The president called the ruling “outrageous.” The final word, clearly, is yet to be heard.
The executive order and the disruption it is causing couldn’t come at a worse time for international medical students and trainees. In March, residency training programs across the US will take part in the annual “match,” a process by which America’s teaching hospitals fill their training programs with American and international medical graduates. By Feb. 22, potential trainees must submit their preferred residency sites. On Match Day (March 17), they learn which programs have accepted them. On July 1, they are expected to report to work.
It seems a cruel injustice for these medical school graduates, who have earned a chance to participate in the finest residencies in the world, to have their professional aspirations and their American dreams crushed due to uncertainty surrounding their immigration status. Imagine the implicit bias that might occur — the temptation not to select worthy candidates who may face immigration struggles — if it cannot be certain that a resident from one of the affected countries will be able to start on time.
This is also true for American biomedical research programs, which are among the finest in the world. Graduate schools are now actively interviewing and offering admission to biomedical research doctoral candidates and postdoctoral trainees from around the world. With the executive order hanging over the admissions process, qualified applicants from the seven affected countries could be negatively affected. If offered admission, will they be able to enroll with their classmates?
At UMass Medical School in Worcester, where I work, we have already made offers to two postdocs who are from one of the seven affected nations. They now must delay their travel to the US and their new work at UMass because their immigration cases have been put on hold for 90 days or more.
Last week, members of our academic community — including many international colleagues — jammed into a lecture hall to express their concerns. They are confused, concerned and frightened. These colleagues, who are integral to our mission, have our support, but they deserve better from our nation.
For nearly four decades, I have had the great privilege to train, practice and partner with colleagues who were not born in America. Medicine and science know no borders; in fact, the ability of their practitioners to communicate and collaborate across the world is the hallmark of their ability to fight disease and improve health.
Physicians care for and about the citizens of the world. In our laboratories, scientists from the US work shoulder to shoulder with international colleagues to discover cures that have an extraordinary global reach. Drug trials on nevirapine conducted in Worcester, for example, now lead to the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV around the world. For that, and countless other examples, America stands proud!
Time is of the essence. The president’s executive order must not be allowed to cause irreparable harm to our nation’s health care system.
Medicine is based on the principle Primum non nocere — first, do no harm. The president’s executive order should have the same foundation.
Michael F. Collins, MD is the senior vice president for health sciences at the University of Massachusetts and chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.