The International Students Who Feel Trapped by Trump's Travel Ban

"I've had to put my entire PhD on hold because of this."

by Arielle Pardes
Feb 1 2017, 5:00am

Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Navid Yousefian was almost 8,000 miles away from the University of California, Santa Barbara campus when he heard the news. The PhD student had returned to his hometown of Tehran on a leave of absence from his research in the UCSB political sciences department. But on Friday, when Yousefian saw that Donald Trump had signed an executive order banning citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the United States, he realized he might not make it back this year, or maybe at all.

"I think I lost a PhD degree today," he wrote on Facebook, posting a screenshot of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's advisory for affected students to not leave the US, as they likely wouldn't be let back in. 

Though Yousefian's situation may be more dire than most, the executive order is a major disruption in the lives of the 17,000 international students in the United States who come from the seven countries listed in the ban.

After Trump signed the executive order, dozens of people were detained at airports across the country, including Narges Bayani, an Iranian PhD student at New York University, and Vahideh Rasekhi, an Iranian PhD student at Stony Brook University. Even as the initial detainees have been released after a weekend of protest and legal challenges, Yousefian isn't sure if he'll be able to return to UCSB. He'd interpreted the executive order to mean that his student visa will be void at least for the next 90 days, but possibly longer, which could mean scrapping years of research and the chance to complete his doctorate.

Those fears aren't unfounded. Niki Mossafer Rahmati, an engineering undergrad at MIT, was stopped from boarding a US-bound flight on Saturday. She'd been back in Tehran for winter break and changed her flight in the hopes that she'd make it back on US soil before the executive order went into effect, and in time to start the new semester. Instead, when she reached her layover in Qatar, gate agents told her she wouldn't be able to board the flight to Boston due to her nationality. She was sent on the next flight back to Iran.

"Overnight, because of my ethnic origin, I found out that I might not be able to exit the country. It's a horrifying experience."

For students who are already on campus, the question is more complex. Are their student visas still valid? Are they safe as long as they don't leave the country and try to reenter? What about students with green cards? 

Many universities have issued statements expressing solidarity with their international students and offering legal resources to those who need them. Campus officials have also advised students who are affected by the ban to stay put, avoiding travel outside the country in order to avoid being turned away upon return.

Saphe Shamoun, a Syrian student in his senior year at Columbia University, told me he wouldn't risk leaving the country at this point. Getting to an American university was hard enough: He was denied a student visa three times—in 2004, 2005, and 2009—and it took nine years before family members in the United States managed to secure a green card, which allowed him to finally enroll at Columbia. He still has family in Aleppo, and the thought of having to choose between seeing them again and finishing his degree makes him choke up.

"Even if he takes the [executive order] back, I can't leave the country with this anxiety," Shamoun told me. "What if something happens when I'm away? Passing borders for me will always be a nightmare."

Shamoun's green card means he's a legal permanent resident, but he says the events of the past few days have thrown into question the meaning of that status. Last weekend Nisrin Elamin, a PhD student at Stanford who is originally from Sudan, was handcuffed detained for several hours at New York's JFK Airport. Elamin has lived in the United States for years and, like Shamoun, has a green card, which under normal circumstances generally allows non-citizens to travel to and from the US freely as long as they maintain their status as residents. But after the ban, Shamoun feels he's been reduced to being a "second-class citizen." (After some confusion, government officials said on Sunday that green card holders would be allowed back into the US, though they would be subject to additional screening.)

Universities have also struggled to provide answers to dual citizens like "Samira Abbasi," who holds both a British passport and Iranian citizenship due to her parentage. (She asked that I use a pseudonym, so as not to jeopardize her ability to travel using her British passport.) Abbasi, a PhD student at Columbia, has never even lived in Iran and says her Iranian passport is expired, but was advised by university officials not to leave the country, especially since State Department officials announced on Saturday that dual citizens would not be exempt from the travel restrictions. As of Monday, that statement appears to have been reversed—but Abbasi still isn't sure where she stands.

"Overnight, because of my ethnic origin, I found out that I might not be able to exit the country," she told me. "It's a horrifying experience.

Abbasi has struggled especially hard with the question of whether or not she can leave and safely return to campus because her PhD research requires her to complete field work this year in Sudan—another one of the countries listed on the executive order.

"I have a flight booked for the 20th of February. It's a big relief that I hadn't already left the country, [because I would have] been stuck outside the US," she said. "But what does that mean for my research? Can I go to Sudan at this point and expect to come back? I've had to put my entire PhD on hold because of this travel ban."

Another fourth-year PhD student from Iran (who asked that I not publish his real name) told me the travel ban would similarly jeopardize his research, which involves studying manuscripts located in archives outside the United States. If he leaves the country, he forfeits his ability to return to campus; if he stays in the United States, he can't properly conduct his research. "In a way," he told me, "it disables me to finish my degree."

But for him, concerns about finishing his academic research are dwarfed by the concerns about what else may happen to immigrants under a Trump administration.

"To be honest, I'm less scared that I won't be able to finish my degree because I don't have access to my research material. I'm more scared that I won't be able to finish my degree because they're going to round us up and put us all in camps," he told me. "At this point, I'm just wondering: What more could he do?"

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