How the Trump Administration Harms People I Know

A few news cycles ago, everyone was discussing the Trump administration's cruel policy of separating migrant children from their parents (and then losing track of them, which cannot be anyone's ideal of efficient government).  This is a serious issue which deserved significant press coverage.  And a major campaign promise by Trump, to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US, has resulted in a controversial executive order that was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional (even though I'm sure many of the Justices would have struck down a similarly tainted domestic policy had the government not said it was related to "national security".)

However, in this post I want to talk about some more minor ways in which Trump's anti-immigration policies have hurt people I care about.  None of these people have suffered anything as extreme as the asylum-seeking families detained at the border.  But I think it is still important to talk about the lesser ways in which anti-immigrant policies hurt people, especially when I can speak from the experience of people I know personally.

There is a tendency for controversial, hot-button issues to soak up all the public attention.  Because of this, the public debate surrounding immigration usually focusses on illegal immigrants.  But the people I am going to talk about are legal immigrants, whom the government welcomed in, and is now treating badly.

(I will therefore not be discussing specifically the Iranian physicists negatively affected by the so-called "Muslim ban", even though I do know some individuals who have likely been negatively affected.  In my experience, none of the Iranians living in the US support the Iranian regime.)

As a fairly privileged upper-middle class person, it's fairly rare for political issues to affect me directly, except insofar as they contribute to my tax bill, and to the government grant monies that have sometimes paid my salary.  I have strong opinions about many of the issues involved, but as far as my life was concerned, the Obama administration was not much different from the Bush administration, except that it changed which news stories I read about on the internet.  So when people I actually know have their lives derailed by politics, I start paying attention!

The information below was obtained by conversations with the victims of these policies.  I assume their information is largely accurate, but I have not tried to check it with independent research.

I. Graduating Students

As you might expect, Stanford University accepts many bright graduate students.  This year, several of the High Energy students have defended their Ph.D.'s and graduated.  They had applied for prestigious postdoc positions starting this Fall, and were accepted.  These are some of the brightest students in the whole world, and they want to contribute their intellectual talent to our nation.

Unfortunately, because some of them are foreigners, from scary countries like China and Canada, rather than US citizens, they are required to get work visas.  In previous administrations, that involved some annoying requirements, such as a rule that you had to go back to your home country and apply from there.  The Trump administration, however, currently has a backlog of around 6 months processing all visas in this category.  Hence they have been unable to start their new jobs yet, even though the academic year started months ago.  During this time, they are:

- forbidden from gaining any income in the United States,
- unable to leave the country or return home, for fear of not being readmitted to the USA, and making their application less likely to be accepted.  (Despite the fact that they are here legally due to their previous visa.)
- advised against moving to their new location for fear of being held to be "working" for their new employer
- advised against doing research (which for us theorists is literally just "thinking/talking about physics") for the same reasons.

Graduate students are not very likely to be sitting on an enormous stash of savings, so this is obviously a serious issue for these students.  Imagine if the government told you that you are forbidden to work, and on top of that threatened you with dire consequences if you wanted to move back in with your parents, or move to any other country that did allow you to work for them.  I reckon you would be pretty upset.

So why didn't they just apply for their visa 6 months in advance?  Well, because any application submitted more than 3 months in advance is automatically rejected as being filed to early.  So yes, the Trump Administration is, by underhanded delay tactics, imposing a Catch-22 that makes it literally impossible for these students to start their new job at the beginning of the new academic year.

Since there are statutory quotas for the total number of people admitted, I'm not sure this foot-dragging will even have the effect of lowering the number of foreign workers in the USA.  It is just being jerks for no good reason, to the international people that we were going to hire anyway.

II. A Recent Faculty Hire

What about people higher up the academic ladder?  I was just hearing last night from a condensed matter theorist around my age, who was recently hired for a tenure-track position at a top UC school in his field.  (While there is some subjective element to this judgement, and he is a friend of mine, on almost any view we are talking about one of the top 10 most promising people in his subfield in the whole world.  That's how good you have to be to be hired at a place like that.)

While he is allowed to work, the backlog for him getting a Green Card (permanent residency) is currently 20 years!  Bear in mind, his employment already puts him in the highest priority category you can possibly get by virtue of employment.  (He could only do better if he was marrying a US Citizen or was a religious worker.)

Why so long?  Well, in its infinite wisdom, the government has decided there should be an equal number of spots for immigrants from every country, irrespective of the population of the country.  As if they were voting on Senators.  So people from India or China have difficulties, whereas somebody from a small Pacific island nation somewhere has no problems.  This is obviously stupid, but past administrations have remedied this by reassigning unused spots from countries like Liechtenstein to the nationalities with higher demand, while still staying under the total national quota.  Well, they aren't doing that any more.

So this guy, one of the most talented physicists in the world, with a permanent academic appointment, needs to wait two decades (or more likely, until a Democrat retakes the White House) just to be able to be a permanent resident.  In the meantime:

- he is ineligible for many grants
- he cannot return to India to visit his family, without having to go through an extensive, 3 month background check on return (and possibly being denied re-entry).
- his brother wanted to visit him but was denied a tourist visa (due to his age bracket and being from India; however his parents were able to visit him).

III. What God Says

The Bible teaches that we are to treat foreigners fairly and not to oppress or harass them.  This is a major theme in Old Testament, starting with the Torah:

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.  (Ex 23:9, cf. 22:21)

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.  (Lev 19:33-34)

The Law required foreigners to be given full access to justice:

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.  (Deut 24:17-18)

The Levites shall recite to all the people of Israel in a loud voice...

“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.”

Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”  (Deut 27:14,19)

This included provision for refugees escaping from oppression in other countries:

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master.  Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.  (Deut 23:15-16)

and for both private and public welfare systems for those who fell down on their luck:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.  (Lev 19:9-10, cf. 23:22)

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.  When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time.  Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.  When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again.  Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.  That is why I command you to do this.  (Deut 24:19-22)

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns,so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.  (Deut 14:28-29, cf. 26:12)

as well as a commandment making it illegal to discriminate against immigrants:

You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.  (Lev 24:22)

 For the generations to come, whenever a foreigner or anyone else living among you presents a food offering as an aroma pleasing to the Lord, they must do exactly as you do.  The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.  You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you.  (Num 14:6)

although this general principle presumably did not take precedence over other Torah commandments which explicitly treated foreigners differently in specific respects, e.g. the rule against charging interest in Deut 23:19-20 applied only to fellow Jews, not to foreigners.

Of course, the message of welcoming strangers continues with the Prophets and the New Testament, but this is enough to make my point.

IV My Own Opinion

Now I am well aware that the United States of America is not a theocracy like ancient Israel, and that there are plenty of laws in the Torah which it would be inappropriate to enforce (or even follow) in modern day conditions.  But as a Christian, I believe that there are ethical principles to be found in the Bible which I ought to pay attention to.  Charity towards foreigners is one such ethical principle, and it is flouted by so-called Christian "conservatives" who idolatrously say "America First!" instead of putting God first.

Not that I accept for a minute that the immigrants I know are bad for America.  Our scientific preeminence requires us to recruit top talent from around the entire world, to stay on top.  I oppose trying to reserve academic positions for Americans for the same reason I'm not a fan of affirmative action, because I believe that it's best for jobs to be filled by a merit based system without regard to extraneous factors.  If that means that we get a lot of Indian and Chinese people, good for them!  A bunch of geniuses are coming from all over the world wanting to work for us, and somehow that's a bad thing?  It's not like you can just hire some random guy who lost his auto manufacturing or coal mining job.

There is also an enormous humanitarian good to be gained by allowing more people into developed First World countries.  However, I do not believe that the US should have completely open borders.  First, because I think there are valid national security reasons to keep terrorists and other undesirable criminals out.  Secondly, because there may be a maximum rate of immigrants that we can accept without overburdening our society or culture.

Still, there has never been a wealthier society than ours, capable of meeting more people's needs.  Nor has there been any society with a stronger track record of assimilating immigrants successfully.  And pretty much all economists on either side of the political aisle agree that protectionism in trade is bad for both countries.  It's almost a mathematical theorem.

But even if you believe differently than me about these broader issues, it's not like the policy makes sense for any of the academic people I mentioned above.   If the government had legitimate national security concerns about any of them (which would be frankly absurd, given the people in question), they shouldn't have let them into the country in the first place.  There's no way that it's in our national interest to let people into the country, lavish our educational resources on them, and (eventually) decide they can stay, but jerk them around the whole time, and make the process a bureaucratic nightmare.

About Aron Wall

In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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2 Responses to How the Trump Administration Harms People I Know

  1. Mactoul says:

    I entirely agree that the immigration process in America and in general West is a mess. I myself was impacted, in the postdoc quest back in 1998, by America temporally sanctioning my country and stopping all scientific visas.

    This mess necessarily generates a lot of innocent victims. But you need to look at the greater picture. You don't believe in open borders but a lot of people do.

    Also, I don't see why America must have scientific preeminence. America did very well for 200 years without it. Also, isn't it good for India and China if their talented people work in their own countries? There are plenty of upcoming institutions in India that are starved for world-class talent.

    I wish you would revise the language about "Muslim ban". It is inaccurate. There was no ban on Muslims; only a ban on immigration from certain Muslim majority countries. It did not affect most populous Muslim nations of Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt. These four countries have approx 700 million Muslims. Add 200 million Muslims from India, also unaffected by the ban.

  2. TY says:


    Your statement below is so true and I add a comment on protectionism.

    “Still, there has never been a wealthier society than ours, capable of meeting more people's needs. Nor has there been any society with a stronger track record of assimilating immigrants successfully. And pretty much all economists on either side of the political aisle agree that protectionism in trade is bad for both countries. It's almost a mathematical theorem.”

    And how unfortunate that politicians forget that protectionism robs a nation. The ideological divide between free trade and protectionism is an old debate that goes back to the 16th century. The English economist, David Ricardo (1772-1823), was the first to show rigorously, by simple arithmetic, that if nations are allowed to trade freely (with no restrictions), the welfare of all goes up. His Law of Comparative Cost (Law of Comparative advantage) was instrumental in the demise of Mercantilism and the eventual repeal of England’s protectionist Corn Laws in 1846. Once relative costs of production varu across countries, trade will always lead to an increase in welfare (proxied by the amount of the good produced and consumed). This is a very powerful prediction!

    The furious assault on free trade is back again under Trump. And for a whole host of reasons, including technological change, (a) the adherents of protectionism are wrong and (b) the U.S can never go back to the days (prior to WW II) when manufacturing employment was over 30 percent of total non-farm employment. Today, the figure is under 10 percent. But they do have a point in that the sectors adversely affected by free trade or globalisation have been left behind or have not participated in the total increase in national wealth. And this is what the protectionist have exploited for their own ends – rather successfully so far.

    It is not a failure of economic theory because the Theory of Comparative Advantage is not concerned about economic growth in the long run. It is a comparative static analysis of two equilibrium states without regard to the dynamics.

    Rather, it is a failure of income distribution to deal with the dynamics. Because of the ideological divide, politicians fail to agree on the appropriate laws and implement polices to assist displaced workers. It is also a question of trade-offs: Add up the many billions the U.S has spent on foreign wars, the many billions spent on elections biennially. The ACA (a.k.a, Obama Care) is a form of distribution, but we have seen the determined efforts of the GOP to repeal the ACA while 30 million Americans are uninsured, Amtrak needs attention, public schools need better resources, and so forth.

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