Biotech leaders denounce Trump ruling on young migrant status

News that the Trump administration is axing the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has been met with dismay by biotech leaders.

In an open letter signed by Decibel Therapeutics CEO Steven Holtzman and his counterpart at Ovid Therapeutics, Jeremy Levin, D.Phil.—and endorsed by a lengthening list of senior biotech figures including Biogen head Michel Vounatsos and Seattle Genetics' Clay Siegall, Ph.D.—the group tells the president that the young people now threatened with deportation from the U.S. "are part of why we will continue to have a global competitive advantage."

DACA came into effect in 2012 and granted work and study rights to almost 800,000 people who entered the U.S. without documentation when under the age of 16, encouraging them to step forward and claim protected status as American "Dreamers."

Young people currently in the DACA system will be allowed to retain residency status only until the end of their two-year permits. The system now enters a six-month sunset phase, with enrollees whose status ends during that period able to seek renewal until the end of this month.

The timelines mean the first deportations could start in March, and the announcement was followed by protests in front of the White House and Department of Justice as well as condemnation from prominent figures including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who said on his personal page that it is "particularly cruel to offer young people the American dream, encourage them to come out of the shadows and trust our government, and then punish them for it."

The biopharma execs take a similar line, saying that "all DACA recipients grew up in America, registered with our government, submitted to extensive background checks, and are diligently giving back to our communities and paying income taxes." Almost all (97%) are in school or the workforce, while two-thirds have purchased a vehicle, 16% have bought property and 5% have started their own business.

"Unless we act now to preserve the DACA program, all 780,000 hardworking young people will lose their ability to work legally in this country, and every one of them will be at immediate risk of deportation," it continues. "Our economy would lose $460.3 billion from the national GDP and $24.6 billion in Social Security and Medicare tax contributions."

It's not the first time biotech leaders have voiced their concerns at Trump's immigration stance. Earlier this year more than 160 denounced an executive order that delayed or banned some travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries trying to enter the U.S.

The statement announcing the demise of the program, delivered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, played to the anti-immigration lobby by claiming DACA prompted "a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border" and "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens."

Trump has now handed the consequences of the move to Congress, but in a tweet last night said it now has "six months to legalize DACA," adding that if it fails to do so he will "revisit the issue." The language used raises the possibility at least that lawmakers could rush a bill through to replace DACA and protect the status of dreamers.

That could take the form of adoption of the bipartisan DREAM Act, tabled by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, which would "allow immigrant students who grew up in the U.S. to earn lawful permanent residence and eventually American citizenship."

"We call on Congress to pass the bipartisan DREAM Act or legislation that provides these young people raised in our country the permanent solution they deserve," says the letter.