Immigration Policy Could Harm Scientific Development

Grant Smith/Fourth Estate

Mason professors study effects of restricted immigration


When people discuss immigration, they often focus on the most visible effects, such as the controversial policies and decisions made by the Trump administration. However, other results of immigration restrictions can be just as impactful, like how they could harm scientific development in the country. This is a question that Director James Witte and Program Coordinator Michele Waslin of Mason’s Institute for Immigration Research have been investigating.

The institute’s research has focused on the effects that tightening immigration policy has on U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research.

“We noticed that of the American [Nobel Prize] winners, many of them were actually immigrants who have been born somewhere else but did their research in the U.S.,” Waslin said. “This year, there were no immigrants in the U.S. that were Nobel Prize winners.”

Under the Trump administration, the number of immigrants who have been allowed into the U.S. has dropped from 45,000 to 30,000 people, a record low. It is expected that in addition to restricting individual scientists from immigrating into the country, even if they are allowed in, their spouses will not.

“So they’re going to become Americans,” Waslin said. “They’re going to become permanent citizens. But still [their] spouses will not be able to work. I think that’s really troubling, because … families are going to have a hard time living on one salary.”

Waslin believes that current immigration policy could hinder future scientific breakthroughs, as scientists can continue their research elsewhere.

“The worst-case scenario is that the world’s best and brightest are going to go to other countries, and we’re going to see scientific discoveries and major advancements in other countries that may have otherwise have been happening here in the U.S.,” she said.

“I think that some of the students, rather than staying here and working here, are going to take their degrees and go somewhere else,” Waslin continued. “That means that we’ve spent all of this time educating people, and then they go off and become the competition.

Within the U.S., anti-immigration rhetoric is also believed to harm immigrant families whose children wish to enter STEM fields.

Aaron Escobar, a junior physics major, wishes to teach in a STEM field one day. He believes that the current education system is inadequate for students of color and immigrants.

“With immigration, it sucks because the current system doesn’t help students [who] have that passion for science,” Escobar said. “Every time I tell someone I’m a physics major and I want to be an educator, they’re like, ‘Oh, physics,’ and there isn’t that love for the sciences, and that’s because the … school systems don’t really help and uplift young people of color within the sciences.”

This is also true for Rolando Flores-Santos, a graduate student studying global affairs. He switched from a biology major to a minor when he realized he wanted to focus more on helping others.

“The reason why I decided to change my major from biology to global affairs was because of my passion to give back to the community,” Flores-Santos said. “That was more of a focus and a passion for me.”

He continued, “The [Trump] administration’s response is kind of like, ‘Well, science is a hoax. Climate change isn’t a thing,’ [about] all these things that are actually true. And when immigration comes into play, that really shapes the people that are coming into the states and the educational resources that they have.”