U.S. Universities Snarl at Trump Rules but Muslim Scientists Are Terrified

Stanford University: Students and scholars from the countries designated by Trump 'are, for the moment, effectively detainees in this country'

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Columbia University protesting President Donald Trump's immigration order Monday.
Columbia University protesting President Donald Trump's immigration order Monday.Credit: Frank Franklin II, AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

As confusion mounts over U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order barring immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations and chopping the refugee quota, the scientific community has joined the howling opposition to the policy shift. While baffled officials and courts hash out Trump’s orders, dozens of universities throughout the United States have warned their non-American born staff and students not to leave the country, and vowed to help those stuck abroad.

Michigan State University led the drive by refusing to release information on the immigration status of its students.

University staff and students from Muslim-majority countries are under stress. Stanford, Northwestern University and Princeton, to name but a few, advised their international students to stay in the States until further notice; otherwise they might not be let back in. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology published an open letter, stating, “While we are very troubled by this situation, our first concern is for those of our international students and scholars who are directly affected. We are working closely with them to offer every support we can.”

“My parents planned to come visit for my graduation. Now they are not able to because of this law,” Babak Abbasi of Tabriz, Iran, a civil engineering student, told Haaretz. “My friends too are unable to go to conferences, see their families, and lots of them are waiting for their wives or husbands,” he said.

Before coming to the Unites States he and his friends were not unaware that such problems could arise, Abbasi explains, but he hoped “that the prize of being in a free country with less dramatic political actions would reconcile the situation for us.”

Once America welcomed foreign scientists

American policy has swung back and forth over the years but most recently leaned towards welcoming “aliens," at least in the field of science. A 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service about the country's science and engineering work force stated that certain “policy makers have sought to increase the number of foreign scientists and engineers working in the United States through changes in visa and immigration policies,” precisely in order to enable the U.S. to preserve its “technological leadership, innovation, manufacturing, and services."

As of 2014, the United States had 6.2 million scientists and engineers, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. There is a raging argument over what constitutes a “shortage," but the USCIS concludes: “More scientists and engineers are needed Regardless of whether demand currently exceeds supply, increasing the number of U.S. scientists and engineers will increase U.S. innovation, economic performance, and job creation.”

A heavy influx of foreign brain power into science could deter young Americans from studying the sciences, or even depress pay, the USCIS itself admits, but adds: “Immigration policies directed at increasing the number of foreign scientists and engineers in the United States puts the creativity of the world’s best and brightest to work for the U.S. economy.”

Shahab, 28, is pursuing a doctorate in computer science in the United States, after completing a BA from Iran’s Isfahan University of Technology. (Like others interviewed for this article, he asked not to publish his last name or that of the school where he studies). Not wanting to be drafted, after the 2009 elections in Iran, he felt he should leave, he told Haaretz, and finally left Iran in December 2012. It was not a trivial move. “Settling down in a foreign country is a pretty hard thing that most people don’t understand. Getting a job, housing, relationships, friends,” he says – and he hasn’t been home since. Iran might not let him out again and now the States might not let him back in.

Columbia University protesting President Donald Trump's immigration order MondayCredit: Frank Franklin II, AP

“I also haven’t seen my parents since then,” says Shahab. “My mother wanted to come and visit me and my sister (who lives in the U.S. as well) this year, but now she won’t be granted a visa. I won’t be in any immediate danger if I go back home. I know my creativity and freedom would be stifled. I would have to go to military service and if there is a war declared I would have to participate.”

Abbasi is less worried about going home if America gives him a cold shoulder. “I see no threats in going back to Iran, I love it in all conditions,” he told Haaretz. “I don’t fully accept its government’s actions nor deny the fact that we could be in much better condition, which we aren’t because of U.S. policies toward us. But I would go back in case I see the current situation is persistent. If I am not respected as a member of a society then I don’t belong here.”

He may be in good company. More than 15,000 students from the seven nations Trump named in his new executive order study in the United States.

Betrayed by the dreamland

Atiyeh, 35, came to the United States from Tehran for graduate study in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins in 2005. After three visa rejections, she finally went via Montreal, where she spent several months. The United States gave her a single entry visa. Wanting to see family in Iran, she left the States in 2007, did her doctorate at McGill University in Montreal and finally returned to live in the United States in 2011.

Though she came on a student visa, she could have applied for refugee status, Atiyeh says: Her activist parents were arrested when she was three months old. “My mom, a medical doctor, spent nine years in prison, and my dad was executed in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners by the Islamic Regime,” Atiyeh tells.

“I grew up on Western literature and philosophy, and felt a lot closer to that part of the world than to my own country of origin, culturally, socially, and politically,” she says, noting that in the Islamic Republic, the default is to be Muslim: There is no such thing as defining oneself as secular, she add. “I had a strong desire to live in freedom and equality and somewhere with world-class opportunities of growth, academically and socially speaking. The Unites States was my dreamland before moving here.”

World science wins from America’s previous embrace of foreign scientists. Atiyeh says she could never have done the type of research in Iran that she pursued in the United States and Canada.

“Public research funding is very limited in Iran. Being a woman makes everything harder. Not being pro-government makes things a lot harder. Most brilliant people are forced to leave Iran anyway one way or another, so the quality of graduate studies in Iran is generally not great, except for a handful of places,” she claims.

At least, as things stand as of Monday, if she goes home for a visit, she could return to the United States. She doesn’t have American citizenship but does have a green card. She might not want to, though: America feels different nowadays, compared with what it was like when she first arrived. “Things are definitely getting worse, and the future looks more and more bleak,” Atiyeh says. “When I arrived, it was already after 9/11 and things were already harder. But Trump has taken this to a whole new level of animosity.”

counter-protesters, outside Los Angeles International Airport demonstrating in favor of U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order blocking visitors from seven predominantly Muslim nations.Credit: Dania Maxwell, Bloomberg

If there is a ray of light for non-American students in the United States, it may lie in the response of American academia to Trump’s order. Cornell’s interim president, Hunter Rawlings, wrote that over 20 percent of the institution’s students are from countries other than the United States, and that the ban is “fundamentally antithetical to Cornell University’s principles.”

On Saturday, the leaders of 62 U.S. institutions in the Association of American Universities issued a statement urging Washington to end the travel ban “as quickly as possible.” And the universities are gearing up to help their students stranded outside the country. Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, stated that the university is acting to help students “who are currently traveling abroad and face difficulties returning to the United States.” The University of Oklahoma’s head, David Boren, urged students: If you’re outside the country, try to get back as soon as possible.

If one can. “We are quite concerned about the experience of one of our students upon returning to the United States from Sudan late Friday,” Stanford announced, noting that the student is a legal permanent U.S. resident. Returning from a trip, she was detained for hours and handcuffed briefly at Kennedy International Airport. She was finally allowed in but, Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and other top college officials, add: “An unfortunate consequence of the new policy appears to be that students and scholars from designated countries are, for the moment, effectively detainees in this country.”