A long-anticipated executive order restricting travelers from a half-dozen predominantly Muslim countries is likely to bring little certainty to American college campuses.
The new order, which replaces a measure put on hold by a federal appeals court nearly a month ago, imposes a 90-day ban on issuance of new visas, including student visas, to citizens of six countries — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. But it will allow free travel to those who hold current visas.
While the reissued ban provides some reassurance to students and scholars already on campus that they can travel freely, it offers little guidance to those seeking to enroll for the first time this coming fall.
Although the order directly affects a relatively small number of international students — those from the six named countries make up about 15,000 out of more than one million now studying in the United States — its impact on perceptions abroad of American openness could be much farther-reaching.
The new order and the one it replaced, which was challenged in court partly on grounds that it harmed public universities in Washington State and Minnesota, are nothing short of twin bombs dropped in the heart of admissions season, sowing chaos and confusion in their wake.
"There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of anxiety," says Ahmad Ezzeddine, associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs at Wayne State University, which currently has roughly 130 students and scholars from the affected countries.
The new order is also likely to end up in court. Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of law at Cornell University who specializes in immigration law, called the revised order "essentially old wine in a new bottle." He said he expected litigation to continue.
Washington’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, said in a news conference that he would probably decide by the end of the week what legal action the state should take.
Allan Wernick, director of Citizenship Now, a legal-aid clinic run by the City University of New York, says the government could now have a stronger case that the ban falls within President Trump’s powers over immigration. That’s because the new order includes a waiver provision, allowing individuals to apply for an exemption to the travel restrictions. The U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security would grant waivers on a case-by-case basis.
The Trump administration has defended the ban based on security concerns, arguing that the timeout is needed to improve vetting and security procedures to, as the order states, "avert the entry into the United States of foreign nationals who may aid, support, or commit violent, criminal, or terrorist acts."
A report by the Department of Homeland Security, however, has said there is little evidence that visitors from the countries named in the ban pose a terrorist threat to the United States.
The executive order also suspends the refugee program for 120 days.
The revised order differs in several respects from the original: Unlike the first order, which took effect immediately and caught travelers by surprise, stranding many overseas, the new measure will not start until March 16.
Green-card holders, permanent residents, and dual nationals traveling on a visa from another country are exempt from restrictions, the order makes clear, as are visitors from Iraq, which was included in the first measure. The exclusion of Iraq has a relatively small impact on colleges, as fewer than 2,000 Iraqis currently study on American campuses.
The order also applies only to new visa holders, permitting travelers with visas issued before March 16, including student visas, to enter the United States.
But the latter provision may do less to relax travel restrictions on current students than would first appear. Students from the countries included in the travel ban often are granted single-entry visas, meaning that if they travel outside the United States they must apply for a new visa to return to continue their studies.
Some colleges have begun exploring options for housing and supporting affected students over the summer if they cannot return to their home countries.
‘A Real Loss’
Still, the biggest unknown is what impact the reinstated ban could have on new enrollments from overseas. Barring court challenges, the ban would be in place through mid-June, long after colleges’ deadlines for admissions decisions and acceptances. What will happen after the order expires is unknown: Will the United States begin issuing new visas to citizens of the affected countries? Or could travel restrictions be extended?
Karen P. DePauw, dean of the graduate school at Virginia Tech, where Iranians are the third largest group of foreign students, said that the 90-day freeze on new visas could make it impossible for students from the affected countries, who already typically go through an extended vetting process, to receive visas in time for the start of the fall semester. Still, she has instructed faculty not to consider country of origin in admitting students. “We want to admit the most qualified students,” she says, “no matter what country they come from.”
What’s more, colleges fear that the message sent by the order could reverberate with prospective students and their families around the globe, not just in the countries named in the order.
Even before the election, there were signs that a Trump presidency could depress international enrollments. In a survey last spring of more than 40,000 prospective students, 60 percent said they would feel less welcome and be less likely to study in the United States if Mr. Trump were to become president.
The initial executive order, issued with little warning less than a week after Mr. Trump took office, put flesh on those fears. Anecdotally, some colleges have reported a drop-off in applications, while others express concern that yields will be down as admitted students opt not to enroll.
"That would be a real loss for American higher education," Mr. Ezzeddine says.
Some colleges are trying to be proactive in addressing prospective students’ concerns head on. Northeastern University recently sent out an email to all 9,500 of its international applicants, not just those from the six countries covered by the travel ban, reassuring them that the campus continues to be a “welcoming community.”
In a written statement, Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said, "While the revised order has narrowed the number of people impacted by the travel ban, we fear that those still excluded — coupled with the faulty initial roll-out and the harsh rhetoric that often accompanies today’s public policy discussions about immigration — still creates a climate where it is far more difficult for international students and scholars to view this country as a welcoming place for study and research."
Aside from those countries directly affected, colleges are most closely eying India, the second-largest source of international students on American campuses. The killing of an Indian engineer and the wounding of his colleague, also a native of India, last month in Kansas has compounded worries that Indian students might think twice about studying in the United States. Both men had initially come to the United States as graduate students, and the attack is being investigated as a hate crime.
There’s precedence for issues of safety and political climate to depress enrollments — Australia saw its numbers from India plummet a decade ago after attacks on Indian students in that country. The father of the Indian man wounded in the Kansas shooting appealed to other parents not to send their children to study in America. "The situation seems to be pretty bad after Trump took over as the U.S. president," he said.
Update (3/6/2017, 9:51 p.m.): This article has been updated with additional details and comments.