I wrote an article for Undark about the fall of the mathematics department in Göttingen, Germany in 1933 as a result of Hitler’s policies targeting Jews.
America benefited hugely from the intellects of displaced mathematicians and scientists 80 years ago. And while America’s scientific institutions are not facing the same sudden existential threat Göttingen did in April 1933, their work and their scholars can still be seriously undercut by anti-science and anti-intellectual policies. It would be a tragic irony if American mathematics and science, which owe much of their status and success to the German prejudices of another era, were brought low by a kindred set of attitudes in this one.
German mathematics was only collateral damage, of course. The loss of millions of lives — Jews, Poles, Romani, people with disabilities, and the other groups target by the Nazis — will always be the chief tragedy. And although the U.S. did rescue many scholars in a time of crisis (and reaped the benefits of their expertise) there were many who were left in peril. Felix Hausdorff, a German Jewish mathematician who asked for asylum in America but did not get it, committed suicide in 1942 with his wife and sister-in-law rather than go to a Nazi camp. And, as math historian Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze pointed out to me when we spoke for the article, the U.S. did not take in researchers from, say, India or China at the same time. The help that was provided was for Europeans only.
Those caveats aside, I hope the article illustrates two important things: mathematics research is not immune to politics, and the willingness of the United States to take in immigrants and refugees in the 1930s helped propel U.S. mathematics departments to their current positions of prestige.
I started writing the article well before Trump’s inauguration, but by the time it came out in February, it seemed all too relevant. Just a few days before it was published, President Trump signed an executive order barring citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. It was confusingly worded and chaotically implemented and led to sharp criticism from civil rights groups, scientific societies, and individuals, many of whom showed up at airports in huge numbers to protest the order. The first executive order was blocked; a second one, slightly tweaked to include only six of the original seven targeted countries, was issued and subsequently blocked shortly before going into effect on March 16. Uncertainty about the future of travel to and from those countries and other majority-Muslim countries remains.
Shortly after the first order was implemented, I got in touch with some mathematicians who have been affected.
One, a math professor from Iran who works at a U.S. university, was on a research and speaking trip to Europe when rumors about the executive order started. He cut his trip short to return to the U.S., but he did not get back until after the order went into effect. He was detained for several hours at Dulles airport on January 28. He has lived in the U.S. for 13 years and is a green card holder. While he did not experience the same terrible treatment some did, it was scary and traumatic. “I felt like I was going to have a heart attack,” he says. “I waited for my green card for 12 years. Then you see all those years shattering in front of your eyes. It was horrifying.” The experience has shaken him, and he does not want to leave the country again, even though the second executive order should not apply to him as a green card holder. Many important conferences in his field are held in Europe and Asia, but since getting back to the U.S., he has turned down several invitations to these places. “By not traveling, I’m blocking myself,” he says. But he feels that the risk of not being allowed to return is too great.
Another person affected is a Syrian refugee who is currently a student in Jordan. She was in the process of applying to come to the U.S. to study math in graduate school when the first order went through. One of her professors, Kathi Crow, describes her as a bright, promising student: “her enthusiasm and talent for mathematics place her among the best students whom I have had in class,” she wrote in an email. The student and her spouse had had their initial interviews for their visas, but she says the next interviews in the long, extensive refugee vetting process have been postponed due to uncertainty about the future of the Syrian refugee program in the U.S. “We dreamed of a house with heat and hot water, with a small car in front of our door, with good education and healthcare for the coming baby, and for me we have always wanted to continue my studies in math,” she wrote in an email. “I love math, I enjoy studying it, and it is the way to build a better future for me and my family. All these dreams are blown in the air now, because of this decision.”
Ramin Takloo-Bighash, an Iranian-American mathematician at the University of Illinois Chicago, posted the text of his speech at a rally at UIC in a moving note on Facebook. His entire post is worth reading, but this stood out to me:
Ten years ago when I had a permanent residence status, before I became a US citizen, whenever I returned home from a trip abroad--and I traveled frequently, the border agents would say "Welcome home!" and it was good to be home. I was an American well before I became a US citizen. By the time I became a US citizen this was already home. So when they asked me on the day of my citizenship interview whether I would be willing to defend the United States against foreign enemies, the answer was a no brainer. This is home, and why would I not defend my home?
But now, look at what we are doing to US permanent residents. These are people who very soon will qualify to become American citizens, and we are treating them like common criminal suspects. Would they still think of this place as home?
When I look at the mathematicians I know, I am reminded that mathematical talent and interest are spread around the globe. American mathematical institutions benefit from the contributions of people born all over the world, and mathematicians benefit from being able to travel to institutions around the world for conferences, collaboration trips, and to teach. Even if the current U.S. administration does not succeed in stopping immigration from any of the countries targeted in the executive order, damage has already been done. On Facebook, Twitter, and in one-on-one conversations with people, I’ve heard the same stories again and again. Graduate students from the countries covered by the bans aren’t sure whether they will be able to work in the U.S. after they graduate. Researchers cancel trips to the U.S. for conferences or lectures. Professors, many of whom are American citizens, feel unsafe and unwelcome in the communities they have been living and working in for years. I have heard people advise international graduate students at U.S. institutions to look for jobs in Canada or Europe.
In my article for Undark, I quoted from a 1939 letter by Abraham Flexner, one of the founders of the Institute for Advanced Studies, to the trustees of the institute: “Fifty years from now the historian looking backward will, if we act with courage and imagination, report that during our time the center of gravity in scholarship moved across the Atlantic to the United States.” And while mathematics today is a global enterprise not centered as strongly on any one country, U.S. immigration policies could cause a similar shift away from the U.S.