Reunions and Sighs of Relief as Some Stranded Students Return to U.S.

February 05, 2017

There were reunions on college campuses across the country this weekend, after a federal judge temporarily blocked an executive order by President Trump barring travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including those on student visas, from entering the United States.

The ruling, issued late Friday by Judge James L. Robart of the Federal District Court in Seattle, set off a scramble by students and scholars from the affected countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — who had been stranded overseas to book flights to the United States. It’s unclear how narrow the window to return will be for those stuck outside the country. The Trump administration has appealed the ruling and written arguments in the case are due before an appellate court on Monday.

Mohsen Hosseini, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was welcomed at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Saturday afternoon with hugs and high fives from friends and university officials. Mr. Hosseini had returned home to Tehran for the winter break to get married, but was unable to re-enter the United States after Mr. Trump issued the executive order last Friday barring visitors from the seven countries, citing security concerns.

Mr. Hosseini, who was blocked from boarding his original flight shortly after the ban was put in place, told the Daily Hampshire Gazette that he had briefly lost hope that he would be able to come back to the United States to complete his studies.

Kenneth Reade, the university’s director of international student and scholars services, was  one of about a dozen administrators, faculty members, and students who went to the airport to greet Mr. Hosseini. “To be quite honest,” he said in an interview, “it was a bit emotional.”

Despite the judge’s ruling, Mr. Reade remained concerned that Mr. Hosseini would be pulled aside for additional questioning or secondary screening. When he walked through the sliding glass doors of the Arrivals section about 10 minutes after the Lufthansa flight's crew members did, Mr. Reade said, there was a “giant collective sigh of relief.”

Mr. Hosseini’s February rent was paid for by the graduate school, Mr. Reade said. The university has established a special fund, supported in part by charitable contributions, to help cover legal, academic, living, and counseling needs of those caught up in the travel ban.

Officials at Rochester Institute of Technology were celebrating confirmation Sunday afternoon that Ahmed Haidar, a postdoctoral research fellow from Yemen, had arrived safely back in the United States.

Mr. Haidar, his pregnant wife, and their 2-year-old daughter had been in Saudi Arabia, where he had been speaking at a conference. The Haidars had tried to fly back to the United States on Saturday, following Judge Robart’s decision. But apparently they were turned away by their airline in Saudi Arabia amid confusion about the current American policy, said Jeff Cox, director of international student services at Rochester. The family arrived in Boston on Sunday and were expected to return to Rochester on Monday, Mr. Cox said.

Saira Rafiee, a graduate student at the City University of New York, was caught up in the travel ban as she attempted to return from a trip home to visit family in Iran. In a widely shared Facebook post, she detailed how she had been detained in Abu Dhabi for nearly 18 hours after being barred from a connecting flight to the United States.

Students and other supporters rallied last Monday at a federal courthouse in Brooklyn in support of Ms. Rafiee, a doctoral student in political science. On Saturday, she arrived in Boston.

‘It Hit a Nerve’

Allan Wernick, director of CUNY’s Citizenship Now project, said Ms. Rafiee had already been scheduled to fly into Boston before Judge Robart’s ruling, as had a number of students, including Mr. Hosseini of the University of Massachusetts. That’s because, in an earlier, separate ruling, two judges in Boston had granted a seven-day restraining order against the ban for travelers arriving at the airport there. Friday’s ruling, however, applies nationally.

Mr. Wernick said Ms. Rafiee and lawyers with Citizenship Now, a 20-year-old legal clinic started at CUNY that offers free immigration services across New York City, had decided on Thursday that she should attempt to return via Boston. A local attorney had volunteered to go to court on Ms. Rafiee’s behalf had she run into problems, Mr. Wernick said.

Ms. Rafiee was en route when Friday’s ruling came down.

Joy Connolly, provost of CUNYs Graduate Center, said the case of Ms. Rafiee, who is one of about 850 international students at the center, brought together students, faculty members, even members of its foundation board. “It hit a nerve in the whole community,” Ms. Connolly said.

A second CUNY student, a Yemeni national, arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport Sunday afternoon. The student, who is studying biology at one of the system’s community colleges, has not been identified. Neither he nor Ms. Rafiee wanted to be interviewed Sunday, telling college officials that they were exhausted and wanted a chance to recover and reunite with friends.

A third CUNY student, who is from Iran and studying for her Ph.D. in chemical engineering, remains overseas. Unlike the other two students, who had valid student visas in their passports at the time the travel ban was enacted, the engineering student had just been notified that her visa had been approved. Mr. Wernick, a professor of law at Baruch College, said she would probably have to reapply for her visa before she can come to the United States.

Though college officials throughout the country have welcomed Judge Robart’s ruling, that enthusiasm is tempered with uncertainty. While the court decision offers immediate relief for those stranded overseas, the Trump administration has already moved to challenge it. The U.S. Supreme Court could ultimately be asked to decide on the legality of the executive order, which also temporarily suspended the refugee program and indefinitely halted the admission of refugees from Syria.

That decision will affect the roughly 17,000 students, as well as an unknown number of researchers and scholars, from the seven countries who are on American campuses. For now, most colleges have advised those in the United States not to leave the country until the 90-day travel ban expires or is otherwise resolved. Mr. Wernick is going ahead with a Facebook live session this coming Wednesday for students with questions about the travel ban and other immigration issues.

Meanwhile, there are serious, broader implications for the attractiveness of the United States as a destination for the brightest talent from around the world. Mr. Reade, of the University of Massachusetts, said that while the past week has been “consumed with triage,” he and his colleagues must now work to reassure current students, including those from countries not directly affected by the ban. And they must send the message that their institutions — and American higher education — remain welcoming to those from abroad.

“People,” he said, “are just truly worried, distracted, unnerved, and deeply, deeply apprehensive.”

Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this article.

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