International Students Dodge Trump’s Partly Reinstated Travel Ban, but Concerns Persist

June 26, 2017

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Protesters demonstrate against President Trump’s travel ban outside a federal courthouse in Seattle in May. In an order on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court said students at American colleges from six Muslim-majority countries can enter the United States. But prospective students still could be affected by the ban.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday to allow a limited version of President Trump’s travel ban to take effect but said that visitors with ties to the United States — a group that the court specified includes foreign college students — will be allowed to enter the country.

Despite that exemption, some legal experts and educators warned that the court’s action may affect prospective international students who are in the process of applying for a visa.

The move to reinstate, in part, Mr. Trump’s executive order barring travelers from a half-dozen predominantly Muslim countries came as the nation’s highest court agreed to hear arguments this fall about whether the measure is legal and constitutional.

A pair of federal appeals courts had blocked the ban, which was first announced in January, less than a week after the president took office, and was later issued in revised form. The Trump administration had asked the Supreme Court to lift the lower courts’ injunctions preventing the ban from being carried out. A ruling in the two cases, Nos. 16-1436 (16A1190) and 16-1540 (16A1191), may not come until next June.

In an unsigned order, the court permitted the ban — which applies to citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — to go into effect, but carved out a critical exemption for "foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States." And the justices spelled out that a student admitted to an American college or university would have just such a relationship.

“Students will be able to come and study. I don't see international students having any problem whatsoever.”
"Students will be able to come and study," said Allan Wernick, director of Citizenship Now, a legal-aid clinic run by the City University of New York. "I don’t see international students having any problem whatsoever."

But other experts and educators are not as confident. Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of law at Cornell University who specializes in immigration law, said that while the order’s language will permit current students from the six countries to leave the United States for the summer and return for fall classes, he is concerned that the situation for new students, who have not yet begun their studies and are applying for a visa, could be less clear.

The court’s order does not detail how the federal government is to determine if travelers have connections to the United States that would meet the standards it set out.

Will the burden be on visa applicants or on the government to demonstrate a "bona fide relationship"? Mr. Yale-Loehr asked. Will colleges’ acceptance letters be sufficient to prove students’ ties to the United States?

Colleges should be prepared to go to court on behalf of students who are not issued visas or who are denied entry to the United States, Mr. Yale-Loehr said.

A ‘Bona Fide’ Relationship

Erwin Chemerinsky, a prominent legal scholar, agreed that the impact of the court’s order could differ between students who have already attended college in the United States and those who have only been admitted.

Students who have already attended a college or university should pass the court’s test for having established a "bona fide" relationship, said Mr. Chemerinsky, who will become dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s law school on July 1.

Mr. Chemerinsky, speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of College and University Attorneys, in Chicago, said there may be more of a question about students who have yet to attend college in the United States, but an offer of admission may still be enough to meet the standard.

And Esther D. Brimmer, executive director of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, decried the court’s distinction between travelers with ties to the United States and those without firm relationships in this country.

"Individuals from the affected countries with no ties to the United States will be subject to the ban on the grounds that a lack of connection to the United States somehow provides evidence of a national-security threat," Ms. Brimmer said in a written statement. "If that is the case, then we should be making every effort to create connections and ties through robust international exchange and travel."

Colleges, meanwhile, are scrambling, yet again, to provide guidance to international students and scholars.

William I. Brustein, vice president for global strategies and international affairs at West Virginia University, said that although he was pleased that the court had exempted students from the reinstated ban, he worried that new requirements to demonstrate ties could increase visa-processing backlogs and lengthen wait times for students applying to study in the United States.

“The advice we're going to give to students is to start the process of getting their visa early.”
"The big problem could be consular officers’ workload increasing with the vetting of each applicant," Mr. Brustein said, adding that he was worried that entering students might not be able to get their visas in time for the start of the fall semester. "The advice we’re going to give to students is to start the process of getting their visa early."

Mr. Brustein said he was disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the travel-ban case, rather than to allow the two appeals-court rulings, both of which froze Mr. Trump’s executive order, to stand.

Ahmad Ezzeddine, associate vice provost for educational outreach and international programs at Wayne State University, in Michigan, noted that this point in the summer is a critical time in the visa process for newly admitted students, who typically are now submitting to in-person interviews with consular officials as part of their application. "The next few weeks will be telling," Mr. Ezzeddine said, to see how the ban will be "operationalized."

‘A Clear Victory’

In a written statement, President Trump called the court’s decision to take up the case, while partly reinstating the ban, "a clear victory for our national security."

The administration had argued that a 90-day halt in travel from the named countries was necessary in order to improve the government’s screening and vetting procedures.

But opponents derided the executive order as a thinly disguised "Muslim ban," which Mr. Trump had called for during last year’s presidential-election campaign. Federal courts blocked the initial order, which also covered travelers from Iraq, as well as a reworked order, issued in March.

Key to at least one of the cases was the argument that the ban was doing serious harm to colleges and their students, researchers, and faculty members. While the original ban stranded some students and professors overseas, many more were afraid to travel outside the United States, worried that they would not be able to re-enter the country.

Marty Brown, executive director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, which had made a declaration as part of Washington State’s legal challenge to the original ban — one of the cases that will be heard by the Supreme Court — said in a written statement that the system "affirms its commitment to student diversity."

"Diversity provides a wealth of perspectives and solutions for the global world in which we all live," Mr. Brown said. "We are proud of our students and staff members, who come from all over the world."

In fact, though, the share of students who come from the countries included in the ban is fairly small, just 15,000 out of more than a million international students currently at American colleges.

But educators are concerned that the measure’s impact is reverberating far beyond the named countries, sending a message abroad that the United States under President Trump is a less hospitable place to study.

Michael Armini, senior vice president for external affairs at Northeastern University, one of a number of colleges that have submitted legal briefs in support of challenges to the ban, said the Boston institution worries about the potential ripple effects of the measure on international-student interest.

"We remain concerned," Mr. Armini said, "that the chilling effect of the executive order — and the possibility it may be expanded or made permanent — will curtail the nation’s ability to attract the world’s best and brightest people."

Eric Kelderman contributed to this article from Chicago.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is