My reflections of 2020 US election as an immigrant scientist

Updated: Mar 1

November 7,2020 — This could the best day of 2020.

Let me explain why.

On November 3rd, I too watched the US election like the rest of the world anxiously, holding my breath so to speak. As an immigrant living in this country for the past 5 years, I have experienced what it means to be a “foreigner, visitor, immigrant” in the US and watched the harsh (at times ruthless) immigration policies unravel, wide-eyed.

The syntax might differ to the context or how people see things, but I define myself as an “immigrant scientist”. Because immigration as much as it is a legal status, is a state of mind, it is an intention — to uproot yourself from a country and dare to start a new life in an unknown place.

I came to the US 5 years ago to stay in the “land of opportunity and dreams”. At the time, I believed naively that if we put our head down, stay clear out of trouble, and worked hard -very hard- that we can make this the country my home and we will be welcome to stay. Back in 2016 frankly, I didn’t even care enough about the election in the US to watch it, whose the result seemed too far away from me ( I mean how it could possibly effect me directly — I am not a US citizen, right?)

Clearly I was naively wrong as it had the ability to change all immigration policies, science policies, the course of a global pandemic, and my life. If you asked me then, I would have said even that I consider myself very apolitical and would not comment on this matter. The truth of the matter is I have not involved anything broadly related to politics before in my life. What mattered to me had been working hard and being on my best behavior.

The fact is that I am about to permanently migrate to Canada now shows the dramatic turn of events in this period of 5 years. Apparently, things have not turned out as I imagined back in 2016, and the role of politics has a huge role in this decision. For the past 4 years living in Trump’s US changed my opinion obviously 180 degrees. I believe it is my duty to share my valid experience with the world as an immigrant scientist.

I had a life lesson that — it is not enough to work hard sometimes to realize your dreams. Wouldn’t I be able to stay in this country? I can say I would have found a way. By jumping on a visa to visa, filing for a green card eventually, and going through that torturous process... But that’s not the point. I do not choose to stay. Not anymore. Because I lost my belief in the American dream and what it could hold for us. I do not feel welcome in this country as an immigrant — I do not approve of the way immigrants have been treated in this country. (even so I found it shameful)

I sadly started realizing the implications of politics in science, by first witnessing the national grant budget cuts that that has huge repercussions on the way we do science and how scientists are treated and paid.

Moreover, the effect of politics on science doubled down lately, you would know what I mean if you are watching all the news about presidential proclamations on temporary and immigrant visas — H1B limitations, changing the H1B lottery system and the infamous visa ban for international scholars in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, to name a few.

Within my protected world at my lab and institution, I always felt welcome and protected in my own way, but not at the macro level. I still find it very hard to believe the rhetoric that American jobs are stolen by people on visas when more than 50% of the researchers have been international in the STEM field. To me, immigrant scientists have been here to work hard, bring all their knowledge and contribute to the excellence in science — not to steal jobs (which by the way Americans clearly were not interested in the first place)

At the point when I became a parent myself, this whole process of being an immigrant -the constant uncertainty and instability become just too daunting, too much to handle. Not being able to plan my next year without having a nervous breakdown about visa applications, not being able to apply for any job opening due to my immigration status and obsessively following the news as if waiting for the next shoe to drop. Even worse was seeing the news on immigrants in detention centers, separation of families and children, and inhumane operations on immigrant women’s bodies… makes me speechless. I feel my blood boil and as if my experience is nothing when compared to what “illegal” immigrants have gone through in these centers and the way they are treated.

What eventually broke me in this hot mess is seeing the response of this country to coronavirus pandemic. There is no way left for me to stay clear of politics when living through a global pandemic.

When people are discussing and fighting over the basic public safety measures to mitigate pandemic effects, things like wearing a mask or social distancing, I do not know how to stay apolitical. When the simple act of wearing a mask has become almost a partisan symbol, and that people may or may not “chose” to wear it, because of their own reasons (such as they are free!) — that is clearly more important than protecting other people, I just don’t know how to stay apolitical anymore. I also don’t know how to respect these people who are straight selfish and reckless in my opinion.

I find it appalling the way scientists — top national experts are treated, not listened to, and even ridiculed at times by the administration. I consider myself lucky, to live in the NY state with a decent pandemic response, but I am still shocked by the lack of a national coordinated response to control this deadly pandemic and watching thousands of people die, recklessly.

Another issue is that the Canada-US border is still closed due to coronavirus pandemic response — the response that is nothing but political. This closure which affected millions of people’s lives since March 2020, including my family. We have been stressed like never and stuck in an immigration limbo with an expiring visa in the US because the borders were closed. We were forced to make very hard decisions to sustain our family legally and financially here.

Can anyone pretend like this closure was non-political, too? I do not think so. The fact that this border is still closed to this very day is a political decision. The fact that Canada implicitly made it very clear that it is waiting for the US to control the pandemic response better is undeniably political.

The response to coronavirus pandemic is political and it affected the lives of everyone I know, therefore if talking about the pandemic, immigration — therefore my life is political, indeed I am.

I can’t and will not act apolitically anymore or turn a blind eye to the effect of politics on every level of society.

Everything is affected, including the choice to leave a country or stay in another. It is our choice to pretend to stay clear out of it. We can even choose not to vote to say we are not political or we don’t believe in voting. No matter how much we try to keep things separate, clean, neat, they are not. Lines are getting blurry.

We have to admit our role as individuals in politics and how it is affecting our daily lives.

I stand by my opinion that everything is affected by politics stemming from my experience as an immigrant scientist, the pain I felt to be in this country, especially during this pandemic. The pain felt for every other immigrant whose life has been turned upside down due to politics, I feel for each one of us.

With that being said, we may choose to express our opinions in our inner circles. I believe frankly we should choose the mediums to express our views selectively and wisely. I am aware that not all people think like me. And that’s okay. Some people may be offended by my words. That is perfectly fine too. In democratic societies, Everyone is entitled to their opinion and can express them freely (Freedom of speech — 1st amendment) This is why elections are held, to choose an elected body.

I will express my views freely and as I choose, any other people would do. While we all do that, the most important thing is to be kind to one another even when we do not agree. No matter what we believe, red or blue, liberal or conservative there must be a way to reconcile the society and function peacefully together — rather than dividing and marginalizing one another.

I am both bittersweet and relieved today to see that US democracy has passed this test and it has shown to all people and the world that power comes from within, from the people. People using their constitutional rights to vote out a president who is deemed to not defending the best interest of this country.

I am sad about all the damage that has been done to the people in the past 4 years and the trauma that vulnerable communities suffered. I am relieved to see the results of the election and hearing a peaceful, empathic response from the president-elect.

Today is a good day.

Maybe the best day of 2020 on which I hold the slight hope that the US may control this deadly pandemic — finally,

Maybe it is still possible for the US to restore its reputation in the eyes of the world, believing in science and led by science again, maybe one day again it can become a welcoming place for the smartest minds around the world,

and maybe in the near future start treating all people -no matter what their skin color, race, religion, or country of origin is-, equally and respectfully.


November 7,2020

New York

(This story is first published on Medium - on November 7, 2020)