Travel ban threatens medical research and access to care in the US, medical groups warn

BMJ 2017; 356 doi: (Published 31 January 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;356:j545
  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. Seattle

President Donald Trump’s executive order1 banning nationals from seven Muslim majority nations, as well as all refugees, from entering the county threatens to damage the quality of medical research and healthcare in the US, medical groups and academic centers have warned.

The order bars the entry of all refugees for 120 days and all refugees from Syria indefinitely. The entry of nationals from seven largely Muslim nations—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—is barred for 90 days. The order was interpreted by the department of homeland security to include holders of “green cards,” who are considered legal residents.

The order, which was issued late in the afternoon and with little warning, caught most travelers unawares. Many had boarded flights to the US before the order was signed only to find they were refused entry upon arrival. Others were prevented from boarding planes or ordered off planes headed to the US. Some had positions with US medical centers.

Suha Abushamma, 26, a first year resident in internal medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, was turned away even though, as a holder of a visa granted to workers with specialty occupations, she has legal residency. According to the website ProPublica, which first reported her story, Abushamma was subject to the ban because, although she was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, she has a Sudanese passport.

When Abushamma arrived in New York on Saturday, she was told by customs agents that she could either voluntarily withdraw her visa and leave the country or be forcibly deported, which would prevent her from returning to the US for at least five years.

Abushamma requested that she be allowed to delay her flight back to Saudi Arabia until a court ruled on a request for a stay of the president’s order, but this request was denied and she left the country just minutes before the court issued a ruling that would have allowed her to remain. “I’m only in this country to be a doctor, to work, and to help people—that’s it,” Abushamma told ProPublica.

In a statement, the Cleveland Clinic said that the president’s action had caused “a great deal of uncertainty” among its staff. “We deeply care about all of our employees and are fully committed to the safe return of those who have been affected by this action,” the statement said.

Nitin S Damle, president of the American College of Physicians, said that foreign physicians and medical students working in the US have to be “thoroughly vetted” to obtain their visas. The order was “discrimination based on religion” and should be rescinded, he said. “If the executive order is not permanently rescinded, blocked by the courts, or reversed by Congress, it will hinder the free exchange of information and travel among doctors around the world,” he said.

The president and chief executive of the Association of American Medical Colleges, Darrel C Kirch, said that international graduates played an essential role in US healthcare, accounting for 25% of the workforce, and that the ability of the US to attract top talent to its medical centers had helped make it a global leader in medical research. “Because disease knows no geographic boundaries, it is essential to ensure that we continue to foster, rather than impede, scientific cooperation with physicians and researchers of all nationalities, as we strive to keep our country healthy,” he said.

Trump said that the order was necessary to protect the country from terrorism and was not a ban on Muslims. “This is not about religion—this is about terror and keeping our country safe,” Trump said. “There are over 40 different countries worldwide that are majority Muslim that are not affected by this order. We will again be issuing visas to all countries once we are sure we have reviewed and implemented the most secure policies over the next 90 days.”


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