An executive order signed by US president Donald Trump late on Friday afternoon immediately barring immigrants and non-immigrant visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US has had immediate effects on scholars and students. More than 17,000 students in the U.S. come from the seven countries affected by the immediate 90-day entry ban: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The American Civil Liberties Union reported late Saturday that a federal judge had granted its request to temporarily block the deportations of individuals from the seven countries who found themselves trapped in airports nationwide after the ban went into effect. The entry ban, however, remains in place.
Trump's executive order only deals with entry to the US. It does not direct the removal of those already present, but it does mean that people who are lawfully present from the seven affected countries might not be able to get back into the country if they leave, even those who hold student visas that allow such travel.
One such student, Ali Abdi, tweeted Friday, "I am an Iranian PhD. student at Yale Uni. Now overseas to do research. Trump's EO [executive order] might prevent me from returning to the U.S.!", Inside Higher Ed reported.
I am an Iranian PhD student at Yale Uni. Now overseas to do research. Trump's EO might prevent me from returning to the US! #MuslimBan— Ali Abdi (@AliAbdi88) January 28, 2017
Abdi, a fourth-year anthropology student, said in a Skype interview that he travelled the weekend immediately following Trump’s inauguration from New York to the United Arab Emirates to apply for a visa for Afghanistan, where he’s doing his dissertation research.
“I still do not have a visa to go to Afghanistan,” said Abdi, who for now remains in Dubai. “After the executive order signed by President Trump, it seems that all nationals of Iran and six other countries with Muslim-majority populations, they cannot go back to the U.S. if they are on student visas, work visas, or even if they are green card holders.” (The administration initially applied the ban to green card holders before partially – but only partially – walking back on that on Sunday and suggesting that lawful permanent residents would be admitted on a case-by-case basis "absent significant derogatory information indicating a serious threat to public safety and welfare". Most international students do not have green cards, but instead are on temporary, non-immigrant student visas.)
“I also cannot go to Iran, my home country, because I am a human rights activist. I have been vocal against the injustices happening in my homeland over the past eight years since I left the country. So I’m in a situation that I am neither welcome by the Iranian government, nor by the American government,” said Abdi.
“The American government doesn’t let me in. The Iranian government lets me in. It doesn’t let me out.”
Abdi, who does hold a green card, was not sure when, if at all, he will be able to come back to the US – and, given what's happened, his heart is not set on it. His original plan was to return to Yale after a year abroad to finish writing his dissertation and to graduate. He has already completed his classes and comprehensive exams.
“To be very honest with you, it’s difficult for me to consider the US as my home anymore, because it has a president now who is visibly racist, especially toward people coming from certain regions of the world, the Middle East and in particular Iran. I do not feel comfortable and safe and secure living there, compared to living in Dubai or living in Kabul,” Abdi said.
He continued: “According to the Trump administration, the visa ban is supposed to make America safe again. It’s interesting that the first few paragraphs of the executive order refer to September 11. As we all know, the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and the UAE. None of those countries are on the list. I am not suggesting at all that the nationals of those countries should be banned – not at all, that is also bigotry, discrimination and racism – but what I'm saying is rather than being a way to make America safe and secure again, this executive order in my opinion is just a way to satisfy Iranophobic, Islamophobic and xenophobic sentiments that are on the rise in the United States.”
The executive order
The executive order represents Trump's effort to follow through on his campaign pledge to temporarily suspend visa processing from certain countries “that have a history of exporting terrorism” and to put new, more “extreme” vetting procedures in place for those seeking visas. The order, framed as intended to prevent the entry of terrorists into the US, specifically references the risk that terrorists could enter on student or other forms of non-immigrant visas, as well as through the refugee resettlement programme.
The text of the order, republished by The New York Times, states: "Numerous foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since Sept. 11, 2001, including foreign nationals who entered the United States after receiving visitor, student or employment visas, or who entered through the United States refugee resettlement program. Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States. The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism."
In addition to imposing the 90-day entry ban and directing a review and reform of visa procedures, the executive order calls for a 120-day suspension on all refugee admissions and an indefinite suspension on entry of all Syrian refugees. It orders that the US admit no more than 50,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017, less than half the target of 110,000 set by the previous Obama administration.
Civil rights groups have condemned the executive order as a pretext for banning Muslims. Trump called at one point during the campaign for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States".
"I'm establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America," Trump said in signing the order. "We don't want 'em here. We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love, deeply, our people."
The order is, however, already having deep effects on students and scholars who were already admitted into this country and suddenly found themselves unable to travel outside it for academic or personal purposes – if they want to be sure they can come back into the US, that is – or who were caught outside the country when the order was signed.
Stranded students and scholars
Payam Jafari is among those who finds himself stranded outside the country. He was planning to return to the San Francisco on a 5 February flight for his final semester in a master's programme in filmmaking at the Academy of Art University after spending the winter break visiting his family in Iran. He said he has entered the US four times in the past three years with no problems, and that his student visa is valid through November.
"I have spent three years of my life in San Francisco," Jafari said. "I’ve been working on my most important project in my life. It’s going to be my first feature film. I’ve talked with professional actors, I have them interested in my project. I’m talking to an American and an Iranian-American -- they're interested in investing in my project, and right now I don’t know what to do."
"I’m in Iran," he said, "and my mind is in San Francisco."
Others prevented from entering the US include Samira Asgari, an Iranian with a doctorate from Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, who told The Boston Globe she was turned away at the airport in Frankfurt. She was traveling to Boston to work on a project on tuberculosis at a Harvard University laboratory.
Nazanin Zinouri, a recent graduate of Clemson University's PhD programme in industrial engineering, was made to disembark a US-bound plane in Dubai, UAE. Zinouri, who graduated from Clemson in August, had travelled to Iran about a week earlier to visit family. "No one warned me when I was leaving, no one cared what will happen to my dog or my job or my life there. No one told me what I should do with my car that is still parked at the airport parking. Or what to do with my house and all my belongings," Zinouri wrote in a widely shared Facebook post. "They didn't say it with words but with their actions, that my life doesn't matter. Everything I worked for all these years doesn't matter."
The University of Massachusetts reported that it was working to assist affected students, faculty and staff and that "several were out of the country at the time of the executive order, including two UMass Dartmouth faculty who were detained at Logan Airport on Saturday despite being lawful permanent residents of the US".
UMass Dartmouth reported Sunday that the two professors were released after three hours. "Now that our colleagues are safe," the interim chancellor, Peyton R. Helm, and provost, Mohammad Karim, said in a strongly worded statement, "we want to be clear that we believe the executive order does nothing to make our country safer and represents a shameful ignorance of and indifference to the values that have traditionally made America a beacon of liberty and hope."
The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students reported that Vahideh Rasekhi, a linguistics PhD student and the president of the Graduate Student Union at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, was detained at New York's Kennedy Airport when she attempted to re-enter the US and was not released until late Sunday afternoon. She had travelled abroad to renew her F-1 student visa, a 10-week process which she had recently completed.
Confusion and concern
Significant confusion – including the contradictory guidance and implementation vis-à-vis green card holders – has marked the rollout of the order, which went into effect immediately after Trump signed it late Friday.
“What we have is, frankly, a matter of significant concern and a great deal of confusion and very little clarity,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education. “At this point it’s clear that the executive order was issued without consulting the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice and Defense.”
“Our hope here is [Homeland Security] will move pretty quickly to clarify the parameters of the order, and to define what it means for people in the United States, and people who are not in the United States who have valid visas. The big uncertainty for colleges and universities is what it means for students who are being admitted now for September. They’d need to get a new visa by August, and obviously new visas are going to be frozen for 90 days,” Hartle said.
NAFSA: Association of International Educators issued a statement on Sunday strongly condemning the order as undermining America's safety and values of freedom, opportunity and openness.
"This is simply inconceivable," Esther D. Brimmer, NAFSA's executive director and CEO, said in the statement. "The latest executive order, egregious enough in its aim to suspend the refugee program and to enact a blanket ban on visa approvals from these seven nations and Syrian refugees fleeing violence, has also caused enormous collateral damage in its implementation. Universities and colleges have already began reporting cases of students and scholars stranded after traveling for reasons including studying abroad, attending conferences and visiting sick or dying family members.
"This particular action took us away from policies, which, in the past, have made our nation safe and strong," Brimmer's statement continued. "Thoughtful policies and not those that are capricious and unpredictable have kept our country growing and thriving economically and educationally. Moreover, this action overlooks the balance between the openness that makes us great, with the security that keeps us safe. It ignores the careful and thorough vetting procedures that have been established to welcome who we want in our nation while keeping out those who intend us harm."
Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said in a statement, "The impact of this decision goes beyond those immediately impacted. Our nation’s universities are enriched and strengthened by the talent, insight and culture that international students, faculty, researchers and staff bring. With appropriate and effective vetting, international students from all countries and of all religions have long been a core part of our campus communities, and that should continue uninterrupted. We are also concerned that this decision adds great uncertainty to international students, researchers and others who might consider coming to our campuses."
A petition signed by more than 7,000 academics by early Sunday evening, including 37 Nobel laureates, condemns the entry ban as discriminatory based on religion and national origin and as detrimental to US interests. The petition argues that the action by Trump damages the nation's position of leadership in higher education and research and poses an "undue burden" on certain international students and scholars.
“The people whose status in the United States would be reconsidered under this EO are our students, friends, colleagues and members of our communities,” the petition states. “The implementation of this EO will necessarily tear families apart by restricting entry for family members who live outside of the U.S. and limiting the ability to travel for those who reside and work in the U.S. These restrictions would be applied to nearly all individuals from these countries, regardless of their immigration status or any other circumstances. This measure is fatally disruptive to the lives of these immigrants, their families and the communities of which they form an integral part. It is inhumane, ineffective and un-American.”
Some university leaders also issued letters and statements about the changes. A particularly strong statement came from the University of Notre Dame's president, the Reverend John I. Jenkins, who called on Trump to rescind the order.
“The sweeping, indiscriminate and abrupt character of President Trump’s recent executive order halts the work of valued students and colleagues who have already passed a rigorous, post-9/11 review process, are vouched for by the university and have contributed so much to our campuses. If it stands, it will over time diminish the scope and strength of the educational and research efforts of American universities, which have been the source not only of intellectual discovery but of economic innovation for the United States and international understanding for our world; and, above all, it will demean our nation, whose true greatness has been its guiding ideals of fairness, welcome to immigrants, compassion for refugees, respect for religious faith and the courageous refusal to compromise its principles in the face of threats," Father Jenkins said.
For international students, 'a chilling effect'
At Portland State University, which has 76 students from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, most of them graduate students, president Wim Wiewel issued a statement describing the order as having "a chilling effect not only on these students but on our Muslim students and all international students".
"We have numerous students of Iraqi and Iranian origin," said Shabbir Abbas, the president of the Graduate Muslim Student Association at Rutgers University (and a US citizen). "Firstly, they are heartbroken. Many of these students have come from war-ravaged and poverty-stricken nations. Coming here was not only a dream come true, but also something that required painstaking effort. Now with a few strokes of a pen it can all come crashing down."
"If they leave the country, their return is in doubt – actually, they won’t be able to return – and a lot of these students, they have young children. They’re in preschool, kindergarten," Abbas said.
One humanities PhD student from Iran who asked not to be named described how the order has complicated – and potentially compromised – plans to travel overseas for dissertation research. The student, who just completed comprehensive exams, needs to travel to Europe, Turkey and Iran to conduct fieldwork and interviews and to visit museum collections and archives.
"I wanted to do it in summer of 2017, but now everything is just vague and I don’t know what will happen," the student said.
Even if the ban were to be lifted in time for the summer, the student said, the entry ban has made it difficult to plan and to apply for funding to cover travel costs.
"When you want to do something like that, you have to plan ahead of time, you rent a place, you have a lot of things going on. It's not just like OK, in 90 days, if it’s OK, I will go. No, you have to plan ahead of time. All your life is here."
“I just started writing grants for travel for scholarships and stuff like that to cover my expenses, to do the fieldwork that I’m going to do. I'm almost sure that they won’t give it to me, just because they will feel like you’re not going to be able to go, so they’re going to give it to someone else.”
Another PhD student who did not want her full name used said that the ban could affect her summer plans to return to her home country of Iran to conduct field research and, after four long years, to see her family.
"I’ve been in a PhD programme for four years, and I haven’t seen my family for the four years because I was so busy with all the course work," the student said. The promise of being able to see her family helped motivate her to do the work, she said. "I was telling myself, 'You’re going to go back home and see your parents.'"
"My brother is getting married in the summer and the whole family wanted me to be there," the student said. When her mother heard the news of the entry ban, she "called me and she was crying", the student said. "She was asking, 'Can you come back?' and I said, 'I don’t think so in this situation.' And it was a horrible moment."
"This is unfair discrimination," the student said. "Why are they playing politics with students’ lives? We’re just students here, and we devoted our entire life to study, to have a better life, to find new things in the world, to just help humanity … We thought the United States is a country of freedom. It's a country of democracy and we’re going to have a great education here; we’re going to have a good life here, and we sacrificed being with our beloved ones, leaving our country just coming here with a hope to experience something democratic. We thought the government of the United States, they don’t judge us based on our birthplace or based on our ethnicity or religion."