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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Rodricks: Hopkins library specialist hit by immigration crackdown after being blindsided by visa denial

Last month, when it became clear that Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel would have to leave her job at Johns Hopkins University and return to England, the reaction of several friends and colleagues was uncannily the same: “I thought this only happened to Mexicans.”

But, of course, given the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration, people of all nationalities face having to leave the country. And that’s where Mahoney-Steel found herself in August: Shocked that she would not get an extension of her work visa and dumbfounded that her employer would do little more than provide a one-way ticket back to her native country.

It is hard to imagine that Mahoney-Steel did not offer skills and knowledge so specialized that she could be easily replaced. For the last few years, she has served as a digital scholarship specialist in the Hopkins Sheridan Libraries, working at the juncture of technology and humanities, with particular expertise in medieval studies, the field in which she holds a doctorate.

The bad news on her H-1B visa arrived just as two books on digitized manuscripts — one that Mahoney-Steel authored, one that she co-edited — arrived from their publishers.

“I thought I was just gaining traction,” she says over the phone from her mother’s home in Cornwall, in the of southwest of England. “Over the past year I have obtained a large grant for my work, created new courses and programs and worked with countless students, faculty and staff to build their skill in digital humanities. ... I was deeply involved with the life of the library.”

Mahoney-Steel arrived in Baltimore for post-doctoral studies five years ago. Three years ago, she took on the library role that, she says, Hopkins created for her, noting that specialists in digital scholarship, while not common, are becoming more so at colleges and universities.

In May, Mahoney-Steel says, she submitted forms required for renewal of her H-1B visa. “I was given to understand by the university that the renewal was just a formality,” she says. “I didn’t hear anything back from them, so I assumed everything was going fine.” She had no clue that anything was wrong until Aug. 21.

“I was called into a meeting with human resources and the Office of International Services to tell me that they hadn’t even submitted my paperwork,” Mahoney-Steel says. “Apparently, because of the rules of the Trump administration, they believed that my job would no longer fulfill the criteria for a specialist occupation. They decided not to even try submitting my application in case it were refused and this reflected badly on the university.”

Mahoney-Steel’s visa expired on Aug. 31.

“The Office of International Services advised me that I had no grace period on my visa and to leave as soon as possible. They told me that the penalties would be very severe if I didn’t leave quickly, which was an alarming thing to hear.”

Mahoney-Steel is married to an American citizen, Ed Mahoney. They were wed less than two years ago. But the couple has faced financial hardship. Her husband became ill and could not work, and Mahoney-Steel’s salary was the couple’s only source of income. They had no money for an immigration lawyer or for a green card application.

Mahoney-Steel says she asked Hopkins for financial help, but was turned down. “All I was offered, after five years of diligent and dedicated work, was a plane ticket home, which, incidentally, cost more than a green card would have. ... The time it will take them to get a new person in place would be longer than it would take for me to get a work permit.”

The couple decided it best that Mahoney-Steel return to England and look for work there, with her husband joining her later. So Mahoney-Steel flew back to England on Sept. 4. In the midst of all this, she learned that she was pregnant. She had a miscarriage after returning to England.

In response to my questions, Hopkins provided a statement that Winston Tabb, the dean of libraries and museums, sent to staff.

“This is a great loss to the Sheridan Libraries, and to our Johns Hopkins faculty members and students. Dr. Mahoney-Steel has been a valuable member of our library staff and university community ... I am aware of a petition and social media postings addressing Dr. Mahoney-Steel’s departure. While privacy restrictions prevent us from commenting in detail on any employee’s personal or employment situation, I can tell you that both the Sheridan Libraries and the JHU Office of International Services worked to assist Dr. Mahoney-Steel.”

Mahoney-Steel found that last claim by Tabb “galling,” adding the distinctly British modifier “somewhat,” and remarking that “sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdities of life.” She says she has been buoyed by the kindness of her American friends and colleagues, who surely must understand by now that this kind of lousy thing does not happen “only to Mexicans.”

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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