As Iraqi Immigrant, Bio CEO Sees Pros and Cons in U.S. Travel Ban

Xconomy San Diego — 

Noori Barka came to California on an H-1B visa in 1986 to work for Santa Monica-based Specialty Laboratories, a medical diagnostics company best known for its clinical testing services. Barka said he had just completed his doctorate in immunology in Belgium, and moved to America with his wife, Evelyn, and his son, David, who was then barely a month old.

At that time, Iraq had been locked for close to six years in war with Iran. Despite the enormous casualties, Barka said there weren’t many refugees emigrating from Iraq to the U.S. back then.

But that has all changed in recent years.

Barka (pictured above), who left Specialty Labs to start the clinical diagnostics supplier Calbiotech near San Diego, has in recent years seen a flood of refugees from Iraq, including thousands of Chaldeans like himself. Chaldeans, who represent an ancient branch of Catholicism that dates to the Middle Ages, are a minority religion in Iraq, and have long been persecuted—especially since 2014 by the militant radicals who describe themselves as the Islamic State.

Barka said he has become deeply involved in the refugee problem, and has been working, lobbying, and supporting efforts by the St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Diocese in suburban El Cajon, CA, to adopt Chaldeans and sponsor their immigration. At least 40,000 Iraqi immigrants live in Eastern San Diego County, which is home to the country’s second-largest Iraqi immigrant community, after Detroit. More than 13,000 Chaldeans have moved to Eastern San Diego County since the Iraq War began in 2003, according to the U.S. State Department.

As a biotech CEO and Iraqi immigrant, Barka said he sees pros and cons in the executive order that President Donald Trump signed to suspend immigration.

The order the president signed on January 27th suspends the admission of Syrian refugees indefinitely and all other refugees for 120 days, until “sufficient changes have been made” to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is “consistent with the national interest,” i.e. to vet them under presumably stricter standards.

The executive order also blocks immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen—for 90 days. Trump said the entire immigration system would be overhauled to screen out “radical Islamic terrorists” and to give priority to Christian refugees.

This is a good move, Barka said, because it makes sense for the United States to reconsider how refugees are being admitted. He said only a very small percentage of Christian refugees are permitted to emigrate from Syria. He contends that officials in Syria who are authorizing emigration are overwhelmingly Muslim, and claimed they grant far more exit visas to Muslim refugees. He embraced President Trump’s statement that the U.S. immigration system should give a preference to refugees on the basis of religious persecution, as that would open the door for more Chaldeans to come to the U.S.

Atrocities committed by Islamic State forces since 2014 led the United States to declare last February that Islamic State militants were committing genocide against the Christian, Shiite Muslim, and Yazidi religious minorities living in areas they controlled in Iraq and Syria.

Amid this crisis, the U.S. admitted 84,995 refugees during the 2016 fiscal year, according to the Pew Research Center.  (An additional 31,143 refugees were allowed into the U.S. between Oct. 1, 2016 and Jan. 24, 2017.)

In fiscal year 2016, nearly 39,000 Muslims entered the U.S., accounting for just under half (46 percent) of all refugee admissions, according to the Pew Research Center. This was a slightly higher share than for Christians, who accounted for 44 percent of all refugees admitted in fiscal year 2016, and the first time that Muslims refugees exceeded Christians since 2006, when a large number of Somali refugees entered the U.S.

As a business executive, however, Barka said the temporary ban on travel visas will disrupt CalBiotech’s operations, which in recent years has done about 60 percent of its business outside the United States. Over half of the company’s 45 employees have come from other countries, Barka said, including PhDs from Iraq, Mexico, and China.

The company develops and manufactures nearly 150 immunoassay tests used to detect specific biomarkers in blood or urine samples. Quest Diagnostics (NYSE: DGX), which acquired Specialty Labs as part of its $2 billion buyout of AmeriPath in 2007, is CalBiotech’s biggest customer, Barka said.

Barka said his company does a lot of business in the Middle East, and it is already affected by the president’s executive order.

“I have a customer who was supposed to come here next week from Iran,” Barka said. “This guy is legit. I had to provide a letter saying that we are talking and doing business.” But the trip has been canceled because the customer can no longer get a visa.

“We are wasting time, wasting opportunities with this order,” Barka said. “We have to do business. We are letting these terrorists win in some ways, because we are letting them impact our business.”

So while he supports President Trump’s order in terms of leveling the religious playing field for refugees, Barka said, “I don’t think it’s valid in terms of stopping terrorists. We didn’t need to create this big mess. If you’re doing business in the Middle East, there will be an impact because of this ban on visas.”