Visa issues prevent several international students from attending iGEM Giant Jamboree

Advisor of affected international team states that travel bans force students to practice “self-censorship”

Several international students were unable to attend this year’s Giant Jamboree, the culminating event of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, Oct. 24–28 due to visa issues relating to their nationality. iGEM is a synthetic biology competition that originated from an MIT course offered in the 2003 Independent Activities Period.

The students who could not take part in the event, which was held at Hynes Convention Center, were from Iran and Lebanon, according to Ivan Istomin, an advisor for the team from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, in an interview with The Tech.

Iran is a country restricted under Trump’s executive order, with only student and exchange visitor visas granted to its citizens. Lebanon is not formally under the travel ban. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of the third and current iteration of the executive order this June.

According to Istomin, the Iranian student was denied permission from the U.S. Consular officers to obtain the necessary visas and were instructed to obtain proof of “hardship” in order to receive a waiver. Hardship is nebulously described in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website as the detrimental consequences resulting from the denial of a visa. Factors for “extreme” hardship include familial separation and health issues.

Istomin also said that the Executive Vice President of iGEM headquarters, Meagan Lizarazo, wrote in an email to the students that iGEM is “not an entity in a position to petition for hardship” and that “this situation has arisen in the past.”

“We have one of the most international schools in the world… And every year it becomes more and more complicated to represent this multiculturalism, this diversity on campus in the team that we are working with,” Istomin said. “[The travel ban] forces students to [practice] self-censorship. Imagine an Iranian or a Syrian student who joined a team knowing that they would not be able to make it to Boston given the current political situation.”

During the closing ceremony of the Giant Jamboree, iGEM President Randy Rettberg said, “We’ve had teams that have had problems with visas getting into this country — some of those have been very sad. And some of them affected quite a few members of the teams. My heart goes out to those iGEM teams and students.”

Istomin said in the interview that while it is unfortunate that some of these organizations are physically constrained by where they are, groups such as iGEM are taking a “constructive step towards a compromise solution” by recognizing these issues.

In the grander scheme, some members of the academic community have started a movement to boycott international conferences held in the U.S. following the first iteration of Trump’s executive order. Several technology conferences and summits, such as the formerly New Orleans-based Web Summit conference Collision, have already moved to Canada and other countries in light of the political climate in the U.S.

Update 11/19/18: This article previously stated that both students from the EPFL team were told to acquire proof of hardship for attending the Jamboree. The Iranian student had to provide proof of hardship; the Lebanese student had attained a visa from the U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, arrived in Boston, and was turned away after questioning.

The Tech has also been informed that the iGEM Vienna team and the iGEM Sorbonne Université Paris team have also been affected by visa issues.