Immigrant cancer researchers saving American lives

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More than 40 percent of the cancer researchers at America’s top cancer institutes are immigrants, according to a new report released by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP). The work of immigrant cancer researchers is an example of how being open to immigration can benefit Americans.

We have seen significant improvement in cancer survival rates in the past 20 years and immigrants have played an important role in that improvement, which affects the lives of many Americans.

I’m the author of the NFAP’s new report. To conduct the research, I examined the biographies of approximately 1,500 cancer researchers at the top seven cancer institutes in the country, ranked by grants received from the National Cancer Institute. What I found was remarkable:

● Overall, 42 percent of the researchers at the top seven cancer institutes are immigrants.

● At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 62 percent of the cancer researchers are immigrants.

● At Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, 56 percent of the researchers at the Gerstner Sloan-Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences are immigrants.

And the contributions can also be seen at other top cancer research facilities. At Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, 44 percent of the cancer researchers are foreign-born. And approximately one-third of the cancer researchers are immigrants at the other facilities examined, including Johns Hopkins, Dana-Farber, UC San Francisco, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The researchers at the top seven cancer centers come from 56 different countries, with China and India leading the way, followed by Germany, Canada and the U.K.

The contributions are not just contemporary. Four immigrant cancer researchers have won the Nobel Prize; 11 immigrants have served as president of the American Association for Cancer Research; the first head of the National Cancer Institute was an immigrant; and today immigrants lead cancer centers or key departments around the country.

There are also many outstanding researchers profiled in the study, including Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, the director of the Brain Tumor Surgery Program at Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital, who first came to America from Mexico in his teens as an undocumented farm laborer and rose to be a top brain surgeon and cancer researcher.

Another immigrant is Dr. Waun Ki Hong, a native of South Korea, who is one of the founders of chemoprevention and the leader of the MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Division of Cancer Medicine. His research and clinical work on premalignant lesions of the larynx has enabled thousands of patients in the United States to avoid potentially damaging surgery and maintain the ability to speak and swallow.

Many individuals in the cancer field work in H-1B status at some point in their careers, note hospital officials. In practical terms, that means if the conditions placed on H-1B visas become too restrictive, it could harm efforts to treat Americans afflicted with cancer. In addition to physicians, cancer institute officials say there is much important work being done by foreign nationals working in H-1B status as research technicians, information technology specialists and lab technologists.

Cancer researchers experience many of the same problems faced by other employment-based immigrants. Previous research our organization has done shows that wait times range from six years to a decade or more for many highly skilled immigrants, particularly those from India and China due to the per-country limit.

If one polled Americans on which immigrants they would most like to see admitted to the country, it is likely cancer researchers would be at the top of the list. The new report documents a previously unknown benefit of immigration, namely that immigrants play a key role in helping Americans survive cancer. But the research raises another issue: If it is so difficult even for cancer researchers who make life-saving medical breakthroughs to obtain green cards, then the need to reform the nation’s immigration system is likely more urgent than we thought.

Stuart Anderson served as executive associate commissioner for policy and counselor to the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from August 2001 to January 2003 and is executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan research group based in Arlington, Va.

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