Trump’s Travel Ban Leaves Students Stranded — and Colleges Scrambling to Help

January 29, 2017

Leigh Vogel/SIPA USA via AP Images
Protesters gathered at Washington Dulles International Airport after President Trump signed an executive order barring visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States for the next 90 days.
Stay calm, you’re safe here. That’s the message American colleges have been trying to send to international students in the wake of an executive order, signed Friday night by President Trump, that imposes a travel ban on visitors — including students and other people with valid visas — from seven largely Muslim countries.

Administrators at colleges across the country spent the weekend trying to reassure students from the affected nations— Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — that they can continue their studies uninterrupted. In the meantime, officials advised students not to travel abroad during the 90-day ban.

But the soothing words belie deeper concerns. Since the presidential election, educators had been bracing for a "Trump effect" on international students. In a survey of prospective foreign students released last spring, when few gave the Republican businessman strong odds of winning the presidency, 60 percent said they would be less likely to study in the United States under a President Trump.

Few campus officials, however, anticipated the sweep of the executive order, which also placed an indefinite-day freeze on refugees from Syria. (A federal judge on Saturday blocked the immediate deportation of travelers from the seven countries who arrived in the United States and were caught up in the order. But that ruling affected only a small number of people stuck at airports in the United States; it left the underlying ban in place.)

"We were expecting something to happen," says Ronald B. Cushing, director of international services at the University of Cincinnati, "but not this flurry and not in the very first week."

Like many of his colleagues across the country, Mr. Cushing spent much of the weekend scrambling — fielding calls from worried students, consulting with his staff, and coordinating with departments across the university that work with international students, all while trying to celebrate his daughter’s 17th birthday.

Cincinnati knows of about 100 students and scholars from the seven countries, but that figure probably undercounts the number of people who initially appeared to be affected there, as on other campuses. That’s because the order, as first interpreted, also applied to people originally from the named countries who are now legal permanent residents of the United States. Those green-card holders are not on student visas, and are therefore not subject to the same regulations and tracking as international students. Just getting an accurate count is complicated, Mr. Cushing says. Compounding confusion over the order, the White House appeared to reverse course on Sunday morning, saying green-card holders would not be affected "going forward."

‘We Support You’

At the University of Georgia, roughly 75 students and scholars hail from one of the seven affected countries. An uptick in concerned phone calls and emails to the office of international student and scholar services had already begun at the end of the presidential campaign, even before the executive order was issued, says Robin Catmur, the office’s director. But the volume has increased in recent days. Some students asked if they could be deported. One Iranian student called in tears because her parents, whom she had not seen in two years, were denied visas. She now knew she could not go home to see them.

Ms. Catmur says she has few answers for the students. She has emailed international students to reassure them that the executive order is not aimed at those already on American campuses and that they continue to have the right to study here. But she recognizes she cannot give them any certainty about American policy going forward, nor can she tell them what will happen after the 90-day "vetting" period.

And, she notes, "our role is as advisers, not legal counsel." Unlike the international offices at some colleges, Ms. Catmur’s office does not plan to tell students not to leave the country during the temporary travel freeze. Instead it will alert them to the potential consequences if they do leave. What if students had a dying parent or another family emergency at home? she asks.

One Iranian student called in tears because her parents, whom she had not seen in two years, were denied visas. She now knew she could not go home to see them.
The university plans a meeting for students on Tuesday. Ms. Catmur is careful not to call it an information session. The goal, she says, is to give students the opportunity to share their concerns, while providing support. "We want to be there to listen — to tell students, We support you, you’re important to us," she says.

At the Rochester Institute of Technology, all but one of some 45 students from countries subject to Mr. Trump’s order are now on campus. The final, incoming student had received permission to arrive late but now seems unlikely to get her visa, says Jeff Cox, director of international-student services.

Mr. Cox’s office has been fielding queries, not all of which have come from students from the listed countries. For instance, Mr. Cox says, he heard from a Nigerian student who was worried that his country could be subjected to a ban. "After all," the student said, "my country is majority Muslim as well."

Mr. Cox and members of his staff have been trying to go to events organized by international-student associations, particularly those of Muslim student groups. "We want to show our solidarity," he says.

Kalpen Trivedi, director of the international-programs office at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has also been trying to strike the right tone — an especially important task at an institution that in 2015 had briefly banned Iranian students from some graduate programs, citing U.S. sanctions. The university has 80 students and scholars from Iran, all but two of whom are back on campus for the start of the spring semester.

Mr. Trivedi says those two are both graduate students on personal travel. When a draft of the proposed executive order began to circulate last Wednesday, the university urged the students to return to the United States as quickly as possible. But neither was able to make travel plans in time, Mr. Trivedi says.

Ali Rakhshan, a doctoral student in electrical engineering, is friends with one of the stranded students, who was visiting family in Iran. His friend tried to board a flight back to the United States on Sunday, he says, but was turned away.

‘We’re an Easy Target’

Mr. Rakhshan’s own family had hoped to come to his graduation this spring. Recently they had traveled to Turkey from Iran for a visa interview at the U.S. Embassy there. (Because the United States does not have an embassy in Iran, those seeking visas must go to other countries to apply.) They were told on Sunday that the interview was canceled.

Mr. Rakhshan, who has not seen his family since the summer of 2011, shortly after he began his Ph.D., describes his mood as "depressed." He has already accepted a postdoctoral position at the Johns Hopkins University, but the executive order has made him question whether he should apply for positions at universities in other countries, such as Canada.

Also stuck outside the country is Ali Abdi, a Ph.D. candidate from Iran at Yale University.

Mr. Abdi, who is 30, left the United States last week — after participating in the women’s march on Washington — for Afghanistan, where he had planned to do research on masculinity in the Muslim world. Mr. Abdi came to the United States on a student visa but has since been granted asylum because of his involvement in human-rights and political protests in his home country.

Speaking by Skype from Dubai, where he was waiting to get his visa to Afghanistan, Mr. Abdi says he doesn’t know if he will be able to return to America after he finishes his field research. He cannot go back to Iran. "I’m stateless," he says. "I’m homeless."

Ali Abdi, a Ph.D. candidate from Iran at Yale University, left the United States last week to conduct research and does not know if he will be able to return. "I’m stateless," he says.
In the wake of Mr. Trump’s executive order, he’s not sure if he wants to return to the United States. Having completed his coursework, he has only to defend his dissertation, and he is now considering trying to do so remotely. "For me, home is where you feel safe, secure, comfortable," he says. "I don’t feel that way any more in the U.S."

Mr. Abdi’s misgivings are shared by a Syrian graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. The student, who asked not to be named because of the uncertainty caused by the executive order, had been completing paperwork to bring her mother, who lives in Qatar, to the United States for her graduation this spring.

Now those plans are on hold. And the woman, who has a green card, says she is questioning whether she should stay in the United States. "If it’s at the cost of not being able to see my family, I’m not going to do it," she says. "If I’m in a way a prisoner, I’m going to give it up."

Mir Shahab aldin Razavi Hessabi, a graduate student in theoretical physics at the University of Georgia, calls the order misplaced. Iranians have not attacked Americans, he says. "We’re an easy target to make the point, ‘Oh, we’re making America safer.’ You’re not," he says, adding that he has been heartened by the protests against the executive order.

Payam Jafari, a graduate student in filmmaking at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, had returned to Iran to visit his family over winter break. He was supposed to return in the first week of February for his last semester. "I've entered the U.S. four times in last three years without a single problem," he said in an email, "and I've lived there without getting a single ticket of any type. This is not fair for me."

The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students has been hearing from students stranded abroad or detained at American airports, including Vahideh Rasekhi, a graduate student in linguistics at Stony Brook University who is president of the college’s graduate-student organization. Ms. Rasekhi, an Iranian, was returning to the United States after going overseas to renew her visa. She was detained at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. As of Sunday morning, she remained detained. Another student in the United States cannot return home to Iran for his father’s funeral, says Surya D. Aggarwal, who is the organization’s advocate for international-student concerns.

The group plans to protest the ban on Wednesday with a "Call Congress" day, which it is promoting on social media with the hashtag #DontBanMe, Mr. Aggarwal says.

‘Fear, Uncertainty, Confusion’

While the executive order immediately affects those traveling into the country, it has left many students, and the educators who advise them, with a sense of uncertainty. At the University of Rochester, many of the 40 students subject to the restrictions are graduate students who had planned to go overseas to do research or attend conferences, says Jane Gatewood, vice provost for global engagement. The university is cautioning them about the potential consequences of doing so.

Payam Jafari (right), a graduate student in filmmaking at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, had returned to Iran to visit his family over winter break. "This is not fair for me," he says.
The 90-day travel ban is set to expire close to the end of the semester for many institutions, which could affect many students’ summer plans, especially if the freeze were to be extended, says Jeet Joshee, associate vice provost for international education at California State University at Long Beach.

"There’s no panic," Mr. Joshee says, "but there’s fear, uncertainty, confusion."

While current students are the immediate priority, Mr. Joshee and others also worry about the potential consequences for international-student recruitment. The ban was imposed at the heart of college-admissions season, as students were finalizing applications and awaiting decisions. Some colleges have already admitted students from the affected countries and now do not know if those students will be able to enroll.

Another concern at many institutions is the potential long-term damage the executive order might do to developing relationships in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. William I. Brustein, vice president for global strategies and international affairs at West Virginia University, says he is very concerned for the institution’s 127 students from the affected countries. The university has issued an alert to students and scholars from those countries, calling for those in the United States to cancel any planned overseas travel, and for those abroad to return immediately.

But the university is also worried about its students from majority-Muslim countries not named in the order — including 470 from Saudi Arabia and another 415 from Kuwait. And it is unsure about the order’s impact on West Virginia’s plans to open its first global "portal" — an academic embassy of sorts — in Bahrain, in collaboration with the Royal University for Women.

"We’re very engaged in that area, so what effect will that have on our university’s being able to carry our partnerships and programs in that region?" he asks. "What effect will that have on recruitment for students and scholars?"

The order seems almost certain to have an impact on enrollments from the countries named in the executive order. And it will probably put a chill on applications from other majority-Muslim countries. Could it send a broader message to students from around the world that the United States is a less-than-welcoming place?

Benjamin Waxman is the chief executive of Intead, a global education-marketing firm that conducted last year’s survey about the potential effect of a Trump presidency on international enrollments. It’s simply too early to gauge the impact of the administration’s travel restriction, he says.

"I don’t think anyone," he says, "could give you clear guidance."

Beth McMurtrie contributed to this report.

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