On Monday, April 20th, President Trump tweeted that he will be signing an executive order to suspend immigration to the United States, citing the “attack from the Invisible Enemy” and “need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens.” Although by the next day the President backed off some aspects of his proposed ban on immigration and the details of any executive order that may be signed are still unclear, it is evident that the President is using the pandemic as an excuse to advance his anti-immigration agenda.
The Vilcek Foundation recognizes and celebrates the value that immigration and immigrants bring to our country. As immigrants ourselves, we are enormously grateful for opportunities we received, and proud of the contributions to our respective professions that immigrating to this country has enabled us to make. Twenty years ago we decided to establish the Vilcek Foundation as a means of expressing our gratitude for those opportunities, and to honor immigrants whose work contributes to scientific discovery, to the arts and culture, and to society in the United States.
At a time when our world is striving to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we find President Trump’s statement implying that new immigrants could spread the virus in the United States not only hugely exaggerated but dangerous. The United States already has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. Any danger that new immigrants might pose as a source of COVID-19 could be controlled by proper testing and—if warranted—by temporary isolation and other precautionary measures.
President Trump’s intent to suspend immigration runs contrary to the long-established tenet that America is a land of immigrants and is inimical to the overwhelming evidence that immigrants are an asset for this country. A high proportion of essential workers in our communities—in healthcare, in food service, and in public transportation—are immigrants. Data from the Migration Policy Institute indicates that seventeen percent of heatlhcare workers, and twenty-eight percent of physicians and surgeons in the United States are foreign-born. Moreover, there is substantial evidence—such as that provided in a 2018 National Foundation for American Policy Brief—that immigration has no adverse effect on native-born workers’ wages and employment. In fact, immigrant entrepreneurs are establishing a large number of successful companies that are creating new jobs.
The President neglects to mention that his paternal grandparents and his mother were immigrants. Both the First Lady, Melania, and the President’s first wife, Ivana—mothers of four of his five children—are also immigrants.
It is critical we recognize that many immigrants are leading us forward through the current crisis. We are in awe of the speed at which immigrant scientists, such as Drs. Peter Palese and Adolfo Garcia-Sastre at the Icahn School of Medicine, or Pardis Sabeti at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, are working to understand the novel Coronavirus; we are also bolstered by the humanitarian efforts of Chef José Andrés to provide meals to frontline-workers and to communities in need; and we are inspired by artists like Yo-Yo Ma who are using technology to bring art to people in isolation.
While rejecting the divisive rhetoric and xenophobia, we wish to cite a positive message of solidarity from another brilliant young immigrant scientist, Vilcek Foundation’s Creative Promise Prizewinner, Viviana Gradinaru, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology: “[The] reality that big challenges to our humanity have no borders urgently signals to us that to get through such challenges we need all minds and hands on deck, together.”
The authors would like to thank Elizabeth (Liz) Boylan for her help with the drafting of this open letter.
Jan and Marica Vilcek
The Vilcek Foundation