Problems with an article from the Baltimore Sun covering Dr. Mahoney-Steel’s immigration issues

Today, September 19th 2018, Dan Rodricks (Twitter: DanRodricks) published an article in the Baltimore Sun. The article was shared to me with the title I only thought this happened to Mexicans^[I saw the article as a photo that was shared by Hopkins colleagues. Dan Rodrick’s Facebook page also shows the article with the original title.] and is currently titled^[As of 09/19/2018 at 10 pm ET.] as “Rodricks: Hopkins library specialist hit by immigration crackdown after being blindsided by visa denial”.

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I didn’t like the title at all nor did I feel right when reading the article. I shared it with about 50 other Mexicans in Baltimore^[Many of us are students, alumni or even staff members at Hopkins and affiliated institutes (like myself).], talked about it over dinner, discussed a bit with Hopkins colleagues, and now thanks to all of them I have a clearer idea of what my problems with this article are. And there are many of them, but we can group them into:

  1. the reporting by Dan Rodricks,
  2. the portrayed handling of Dr. Mahoney-Steel’s case by Johns Hopkins University,
  3. and the portrayed lack of attention by Dr. Mahoney-Steel.

Before I get into all of it, there is a petition online in support of Dr. Mahoney-Steel that you can read and sign here if you want: nearly 2,000 people have already signed it. You can also read other’s reasons for signing the petition. Right now I do not feel comfortable signing this petition, but maybe you are.

The reporting by Dan Rodricks

The article starts by framing Dr. Mahoney-Steel’s story around the fact that she had to return to England due to issues with her immigration paperwork and that:

the reaction of several friends and colleagues was uncannily the same: “I thought this only happened to Mexicans.”

There was no need at all to grab attention to Dr. Mahoney-Steel’s story by mentioning Mexicans or any other Spanish-speaking immigrants. Dan Rodricks is trying to get the reader to think that Mexicans are illegal immigrants (which many politicians have said), and thus that they aren’t welcome, and then ohh, others aren’t welcome either. Another interpretation of this quote is that Mexicans are uneducated, which would be equally offending.

While I’m glad that the title has been changed at the Baltimore Sun’s website, the first paragraph and last paragraph of the story still mention this quote that is attributed to friends and colleagues of Dr. Mahoney-Steel. They might have said this, but Dan Rodricks could have simply ignored their quote and framed his story along the lines of the updated title: a library specialist that is suffering because of the current immigration policies.

My second problem with the reporting is that there is a lack of information that is important in this context. There are many ways to become a permanent resident in the US and thus get a green card. Some of these ways involve getting sponsored by your employer. Some don’t. Basically, in some situations it would be the employer’s responsibility (Johns Hopkins University in this case) to be involved in and be supportive and in others I think that they are not obliged to help financially. You can have very different reactions to this story based on what mechanism Dr. Mahoney-Steel was asking Johns Hopkins University to help her.

The portrayed handling of Dr. Mahoney-Steel’s case by Hopkins

I’m using portrayed here because we currently don’t know Hopkins’ side.

What seems to be the main reason why Dr. Mahoney-Steel’s case became a story is because she submitted her documents to request a renewal of her H-1B (highly specialized worker) visa to Johns Hopkins University’s Office of International Services. She didn’t hear back from them until she heard in August 21st that they decided not to send her documents to the US government and that she should leave the country by August 31st.

This is hugely disturbing and would be enough to grab the attention of many readers. This is what caught the attention of several colleagues at Hopkins. We haven’t really heard the story from OIS’ perspective and I would definitely want to know more^[If they ever can share their story due to privacy restrictions.].

Due to the lack of details in the article, we don’t know exactly which mechanism Dr. Mahoney-Steel was asking Hopkins to help her with. She might have been considering applying under employed-based immigration via EB-1 or EB-2. For the EB-1 I think that your employer has to help you quite a bit. But not all employers want to do so. Also these processes take a considerable amount of time, not 10 days.

Alternatively, maybe Dr. Mahoney-Steel was asking Hopkins to help her pay for her green card application through family since she’s married to a US citizen and due to their portrayed extremely poor communication on her H-1B visa renewal. I haven’t heard of any employer helping their employees with the green card fees in such cases. It’d be great if they did it, but I wouldn’t expect this to happen.

The portrayed lack of attention by Dr. Mahoney-Steel

Again, we don’t know how everything exactly happened. My issues here could be based on how Dan Rodricks used his notes from interviewing Dr. Mahoney-Steel.

Many of the Mexicans I shared the article with are not US citizens^[You can be a dual citizen.] and thus have different types of visas that allow us to study and/or work in the US. We learn fast, either through personal experience or stories from others, that you have to prioritize any visa paperwork you have to do. That involves lots of planning and attention to detail. For example:

  • Knowing when your visa expires.
  • Learning the types of visas you can apply to after your current one expires.
  • Fees associated with the different visa applications.
  • Requirements for the visa you want to get: timeline, documents that you have, documents that you need to get, etc.
  • Communicating with all parties involved.

With this information at hand you can make plans. OIS is also pretty helpful, in my experience, as they provide seminars where they explain a lot of this information and you can also request to meet with one of their specialists. OIS also sends reminders that prompt you to get moving: get your documents ready and send them on time. Having defended OIS based on my experience I also have to say that I’ve heard them make costly mistakes that affected friends of mine. Ultimately, the immigrant is responsible for their own application and has to double check everything others make.

Additionally, I have learned myself that if something says that it can take between 60 and 90 days, that I should think that it’ll take 90 days and be happy if it takes less than that. This doesn’t mean that our plans are the best or that they always work out. It just means that we try to be prepared.

Having said all that, as portrayed, I’m surprised by Dr. Mahoney-Steel because:

  • She didn’t contact OIS a few days after sending her documents to follow up on her case. If she had, maybe she would have had more time to convince them to actually send her H-1B visa renewal documents to the US government, ask for help for her green card (EB-1, EB-2?, EB-2 NIW?), ask for her direct employer (Sheridan Libraries) to intervene, etc. Still, OIS should have immediately notified her that they weren’t going to send her H-1B documents to the US government!!
  • She has been married to a US citizen for less than two years (but over one)… and didn’t get a green card via an application through family. To my understanding, that’s one of the cheapest and fastest ways^[It will still take months, say about 11 to 13 months from what I’ve heard.] to apply for a green card. If you can get a green card, then you can stop worrying about visas. Isn’t that something we all want? Yes, it’s not free. The I-485^[The form you submit to get a green card.] fee is 1,225 USD for someone aged 14 to 78^[You might need to cover about another 400 USD in fees to get the documents that show that you have all the vaccines you need if you go to a place like Passport Health.]. Say that you are applying via EB2-NIW and hiring some lawyers, then you are looking at 5,000 USD or more in lawyer fees alone plus another 700 USD for the government. Given the large advantages that you get from having a green card and her husband’s situation, I would hope that many would have helped Dr. Mahoney-Steel raise 1,225 USD. Luckily for Dr. Mahoney-Steel, she can still apply for a green card through family even if she is living outside the US. I would hope that Johns Hopkins would be willing to hire her back then, or maybe even now and have her work remotely from the UK while the green card application is being processed (if Hopkins has a branch in Europe).

It does seem like Hopkins realized that they made a mistake (as portrayed in the article) because they covered her flight back to England.

I’m sorry to say this, but it ultimately looks to me that Dr. Mahoney-Steel felt entitled and never expected to face immigration problems. Though again, that’s the current lens I have, that is, Dan Rodricks’ article and the infamous quote from her friends and colleagues. That’s why it would be useful to hear more from Dr. Mahoney-Steel.

Closing remarks

I hope that Dan Rodricks and/or the Baltimore Sun edits his article to remove any mentions about Mexicans, which as they stand currently are all negative and ultimately offensive.

I also hope that we get some clarification from Johns Hopkins University Office of International Services. Depending on what happened, they might have to apologize to Dr. Mahoney-Steel.

If you are an immigrant in the US, I encourage you to plan ahead as much as you can anything related to visa paperwork. The current administration will make it as hard as they can to legally immigrate to the US, read for example this article: “Authorities Can Now Deny Visa and Green Card Applications Without Giving Applicants a Chance to Fix Errors”. But you don’t need to make it harder on yourself by lack of planning. Take advantage of all the resources you have at your employer (OIS in this case) and ask your fellow immigrants to share their knowledge with you. Double check every document because others (like your employer) might have made mistakes in a form or letter (basically don’t trust experts will do their job perfectly) because the US government will make you pay (in time, lost opportunities, etc) if you make a mistake. If you are thinking about getting a green card, you can start by checking websites like this one that lists all the possible ways to get one and by checking the USCIS website.

Finally, I’ll write a letter to the Baltimore Sun including a link to this post. But that’s for tomorrow September 20th 2018.

At least two friends thought of this quote by Martin Niemöller (which I didn’t know myself):

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


I would like to thank those who I discussed this article with and corrected some of my facts. If you want me to name you let me know and I’ll edit this post. I didn’t because going the other way around (from named to anonymous) is challenging.

Leonardo Collado-Torres
Leonardo Collado-Torres
Investigator @ LIBD, Assistant Professor, Department of Biostatistics @ JHBSPH

#rstats @Bioconductor/🧠 genomics @LieberInstitute/@lcgunam @jhubiostat @jtleek @andrewejaffe alumni/@LIBDrstats @CDSBMexico co-founder

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