Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel took a winding path to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
She began by studying politics and philosophy in her native Britain, then trained as a singer, before getting a doctoral degree in medieval music and literature. Working with centuries-old French lyrics exposed her to systems that help digitally analyze manuscripts, poetry, and literature. In 2013, Mahoney-Steel was hired by Johns Hopkins to use technology to conduct research in medieval studies and to support other researchers, and arrived in the United States on a visa designed for skilled workers, the H-1B. She moved to Baltimore, met the man who would become her husband, and bought a house. All was well—until last year.
Mahoney-Steel’s visa was up for renewal, a process that has traditionally been automatic, and Johns Hopkins gave her the impression that she had no reason to worry. Nine days before her visa was due to expire, however, authorities at the school told her the renewal process was no longer just a formality and that they would not, in fact, seek to extend her H-1B visa. She had to leave the country almost immediately.
“It was a huge shock,” she told me, “and it threw everything off.”
Mahoney-Steel’s case isn’t unique, but it captures the uncertainty of an unwieldy immigration system that successive administrations have failed to reform, and that has become further mired in doubt in the Donald Trump era. The H-1B visa in particular, both its supporters and detractors argue, desperately needs an overhaul. Yet competing interests and disagreement over what needs fixing mean that, even with Trump’s administration having put restricting immigration flows at the center of its agenda, change is far from guaranteed.