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Scientific Conference Planners Concerned About Immigration Policy

As immigrant communities across the U.S. watch the battle over President Trump's administration ban, there is also concern among some scientists and medical groups.

They say there should be a welcoming atmosphere for the thousands of international researchers and students who attend conferences every year in the U.S. and help shape medical and technical advances.

Many scientific, academic and medical groups signed onto a letter urging the president to rescind his original immigration executive order.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society, is part of the group. This week, it's holding its annual conference in Boston.

"We typically have about 5,000 scientists from all over the world," says spokesperson Tiffany Lohwater.

Lohwater says more than 50 countries are represented at the annual meeting. She fears the restrictions favored by the president would not only disrupt lives and careers but could also stifle scientific progress.

"There's a lot of concern in terms of sharing information among scientists and students as well because students are often big parts of these conferences," she says. "But they won't have the most updated information. They won't be able to participate in the same way as their peers."

At this point, it's too early to tell what Trump immigration policy might prevail and the impact it will make. But some technical groups are already looking to hold their conferences elsewhere.

In a blog post, the Internet Engineering Task Force, an international organization that works to make the Internet run smoothly, said it was too late to change its venue for next month's convention in Chicago. But the organization said it may reconsider holding its future meeting in the U.S.

In May, about 17,000 people are expected to attend a medical conference in Chicago with a strong international draw. Professor Grace Elta heads the conference on digestive disorders and says a handful of international attendees — who are not from the designated countries in the Trump ban — canceled after learning about the president's initial immigration order.

"You know, is that just the tip of the iceberg?" she asks. "We don't know. Remember the purpose of this meeting is sharing science, patient care. It's critical to bettering the health of mankind."

Earlier this month, about 850 people gathered at Chicago's McCormick Place for Emerge, a conference for planners of faith-based meetings and events.

David Wright, one of the organizers, calls the controversy over the president's immigration policies both a challenge and an opportunity.

"To prove ourselves again and what we stand for as far as inclusiveness, as far as not being afraid of strangers who look different and talk different," he says.

College student Simeon Ferguson, originally from Ethiopia, was adopted when he was 3, and says he sees nothing wrong with Trump's travel ban.

"I feel like these are just to stabilize our security as a country," he says.

At Chicago's auto show, electronics engineer Wieslaw Poplawski feels conflicted.

He's a naturalized citizen who came to the U.S. from Poland on a student visa years ago. He said he agrees with the scientists and others urging the president to alter his immigration approach.

While he doesn't think there's a vast anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., he argues that if we roll up the welcome mat, America will lose.

"Our image kind of goes down, you know: open door America, friendly people," he says. "Now we don't look very friendly."

That's why the scientists and others who sent the letter to the president say they are ready to assist his administration in crafting a policy that ensures safety while continuing to attract international scientific talent.

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Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.