Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel, a former digital scholarship specialist at the Sheridan Libraries, returned to the United Kingdom on Sept. 4 after her temporary work visa expired. She had worked at the University for the past five years, and she intended to renew her visa this year. However, according to Mahoney-Steel, University officials failed to submit her application for renewal, fearing that it would be rejected under current immigration policy.
“They felt that my application for a specialist occupation visa, the H-1B, would no longer be accepted by the people who scrutinize these things,” she said. “While this went through fine three years ago and was accepted as a specialist occupation, they didn’t feel that it would be accepted now.”
Mahoney-Steel said that she submitted her paperwork in June. At this time, the library’s human resources manager gave her verbal assurance that she should not expect problems. Under U.S. law, H-1B applicants can continue to work with their current employer for up to 240 days past their visa expiration as long as the extension application has been submitted.
Yet at a meeting with Human Resources, her manager and an Office of International Services (OIS) representative on August 21, Mahoney-Steel said that she was told her visa application had not been submitted and that she would need to leave the country by August 31, when her visa expired.
“They’ve got an employee who’s been here for five years, who’s got a life here. That can’t just be picked up and moved in eight days,” she said. “It’s an impossible thing to do.”
The alternative for Mahoney-Steel was to apply for a green card, which would begin the process of becoming a permanent resident. Though she is married to a U.S. citizen, Mahoney-Steel said that she did not apply for a green card because of the high cost. Her husband had also been ill and unemployed.
Mahoney-Steel said that the University paid for her plane ticket back to the U.K., which was around $2300; applying for the green card would have cost her just under $2000.
Under the Trump administration, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has tightened their requirements for visa and green card applicants, which some believe make it more difficult to hire foreign nationals. On Tuesday a new policy went into effect allowing USCIS officers to deny any visa or green card application that is missing information or contains errors without giving applicants the opportunity to correct or amend details.
H-1B visas allow U.S. employers to hire foreigners in “specialty occupations,” and initial visas are granted for three years with the possibility of extensions. Specialty occupations require at least a Bachelor’s degree. Eighty-five thousand H-1B visas are available each year, though universities and research organizations are not included in this cap.
According to Mahoney-Steel, OIS was prepared to help her apply for a work permit, a process which would take three or four months. Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums Winston Tabb would need to keep her job open during this time, during which Mahoney-Steel would not be able to work. On Aug. 26, Mahoney-Steel said she was informed that her job would not be held. Nine days later, Mahoney-Steel flew back to the U.K. The next day, Mahoney-Steel miscarried her baby.
An online petition to support Mahoney-Steel has garnered over 1,800 signatures as of Sept. 19. Drew Heles, a software engineer in Sheridan Libraries and colleague of Mahoney-Steel, created the petition to call attention to the situation. He also started a GoFundMe to raise money to support Mahoney-Steel and her husband.
“She isn’t just a brilliant mind,” he said. “She’s also a warm, kind and available heart with a great sense of humor to boot. That’s the kind of person you want to have on your campus, and if you get someone like that, you fight like hell to keep them here.”
Heles noted that many students, faculty and staff appreciated Mahoney-Steel not only for her knowledge in digital scholarship but also in medieval studies, the field in which she obtained her doctorate. Mahoney-Steel served as the library liaison for three departments: Comparative Thought and Literature; Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality; and German and Romance Languages and Literature (GRLL).
Derek Schilling, a professor of French, and Kristin Cook-Gailloud, a senior lecturer in French language, both work in GRLL and personally know Mahoney-Steel.
Schilling and Cook-Gailloud represent the Executive Council of the Johns Hopkins Association of American University Professors (AAUP) Chapter. AAUP is a national organization with advocacy chapters and unions at universities across the country. While the organization does not speak on behalf of individuals, AAUP advocates on broader issues like the University’s visa policies.
While Schilling acknowledged the University’s need to comply with confidentiality, he also said that Hopkins officials could do more to increase transparency.
“The University can do more to keep its contractual employees informed about applications that are made on their behalf, as in the case of Dr. Mahoney-Steel, and to invest the resources needed to keep on top of evolving immigration legislation so that a unit that hires a foreign national can proceed with certainty in appointments and extensions of appointments,” he said.
Cook-Gailloud added that since she is not a full-time professor, Mahoney-Steel’s departure has created a fearful climate on campus for her.
“It also has a direct repercussion on contractual employees like me,” she said. “The message that it sends is that things can be terminated rather quickly, and it is terrifying.”
AJ Tsang, executive vice president of the Student Government Association (SGA), said that he and other SGA members are working to draft letters of support for Mahoney-Steel. Tsang, who studies French, has taken several classes with Mahoney-Steel and said that she often went above and beyond to find relevant materials in Special Collections.
“What happened to Tamsyn speaks to a larger issue in the University of being transparent about processes for international students, staff and faculty,” he said. “Especially when we live in a time where the country is shifting towards nationalism and xenophobia, it’s important for the University to stand up for its international affiliates.”
Tsang said that SGA members are planning to contact both the Sheridan Libraries and OIS for further information. Tabb had sent an email to library staff on Sept. 10 to inform them that both OIS and Sheridan Libraries had “assisted” Mahoney-Steel, though he did not specify how. The News-Letter reached out to both divisions, and individuals from both stated that they are unable to comment on specific cases.
Though OIS declined to comment, Assistant Vice Provost for International Student Programs and Scholar Services James Brailer explained that OIS works with around 10,000 international students, staff, faculty, researchers and their dependents annually.
“Our office principally serves non-immigrant visa holders such as individuals on F-1, J-1, H-1B, TN, and their dependents,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Our office plays a role in providing oversight to the employment-based permanent residence process, though cases are handled by JHU’s outside immigration counsel.”
The News-Letter asked Tabb whether there are plans for Mahoney-Steel to return to Hopkins and whether the Library will embark on a hiring process.
“The Sheridan Libraries will ensure that Dr. Mahoney-Steel’s responsibilities are covered, both in the short and long term,” Tabb wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
Mahoney-Steel has no current plans to return to the U.S. and is instead focusing on finding employment in the U.K.
“I feel that they should be fighting for me and fighting for other employees who have dedicated their heart and their soul to their jobs,” she said. “I would love to still be doing my job at Hopkins, because it meant the absolute world to me.”
Clarification: This article has been updated on Sept. 21 to reflect Derek Schilling and Kristin Cook-Gailloud’s positions within the Association of American University Professors.