Union Delays Deportation for Stem Cell Researcher

Wilda Helen, a postdoctoral researcher who was fired last month, has been granted last-minute permission to stay in the United States until Feb. 27 to complete the appeal process for her termination.

“Twenty-two days is better than zero days, so we’re excited to have extra time,” UAW 5810 representative Scott Clifthorne said. “The question now is whether the university will engage in a good faith effort to expedite the grievance process and reach a settlement where we can sit down and actually appeal Wilda’s termination before she has to leave again and then get a decision back from an arbitrator before she has to leave again.”

United Auto Workers 5810 President Xiaoqing Cao agreed.

“The timeframe is tight, but if every party has a good faith, we can work this out for sure,” Cao said. “We do have enough time if we want to go through arbitration, [but] hopefully they can resolve the issue in the given time we have right now.”

On Feb. 4, representatives from UAW 5810 received a letter from Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista), who said the Department of Homeland Security will allow Helen to stay.

“We actually got help from a congressman, Bob Filner, [who] talked to Homeland Security and then Homeland Security allowed her to stay until Feb. 27,” Cao said.

If Helen had not received more time to appeal her termination, she would have had to leave on Saturday, Feb. 5 to return to Indonesia.

“I understand how much stress she has been through in the past month,” Cao said. “It’s been a huge burden.”

Helen was fired on Jan. 6 from professor Adam Engler’s stem cell and bioengineering laboratory, where she worked for two years earning $43,000 annually. The reason has not been disclosed, since the termination is currently under investigation.

Helen then filed an appeal for her termination under the terms of the union’s collective bargaining agreement, which has allowed both U.S. and international postdoctoral researchers the right to appeal since summer 2010.

“The university is adhering to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement mutually agreed upon by UAW union members and UC,” UCSD spokesperson Christine Clark said in a statement. “The university has provided options for Dr. Helen to participate in her appeal. The matter involving Dr. Helen is a personnel issue and the university cannot discuss personnel issues.”

The UCSD Labor Relations Office deleted Helen’s record in the Federal Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, giving her 30 days to leave the country or else remain illegally.

As a result of her dismissal, Helen’s J-1 visa — a non-immigrant visa issued to visitors participating in programs promoting cultural exchange — would be invalidated.

Helen was not notified of her deleted record until Jan. 25, according to Clifthorne. She received a 10-day notice to leave the country.

A group of about 20 researchers, union members, teaching assistants, faculty members and students gathered at the Chancellor’s Complex on Feb. 4, the day before Helen was scheduled to leave, to request enough time to complete her appeal process.

According to Helen, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox said she spoke with UCSD’s Labor Relations Office and the university attorney.

“The university did not help,” Cao said. “They stayed where they were from the beginning where they terminated Dr. Helen.”

The group stayed outside the Chancellor’s office for about five hours before leaving.

“The Chancellor didn’t give any response to UAW and myself after we met the Chancellor,” Helen said.

Two days before, a group of 50 supporters gathered at the Chancellor’s Complex but did not receive a response.

Helen needed one more year to complete her three-year postdoctoral program at UCSD.

According to Clifthorne, 40 to 60 percent of the 6,000 postdoctoral researchers in the UC system are from other countries.

“I also feel that, because we have a union, we can work out with the university and resolve this issue,” Cao said. “It will be good for the university because there are so many postdocs involved in this union.”

At the Feb. 4 gathering, when asked about future plans if she had to leave the country the next day, Helen said she was taking the process one step at a time.

“I just need to face what is happening right now,” Helen said.

If she had not received the concession, Helen said, UAW would have kept working for her while she was out of the country.

Readers can contact Regina Ip at [email protected].

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