University officials and courts push back on US travel ban

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Trump administration’s travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries has been suspended by court order
  • The matter remains before the courts currently and is expected to eventually progress to the US Supreme Court
  • In the meantime, the effects of the ban have already been profound with 60,000 or more visas cancelled and with considerable uncertainty resulting for current and prospective students, as well as visiting scholars, from affected countries
  • US educators have been quick to speak out against the ban but many worry that its effects will be long lasting, particularly in terms of international student recruitment from and scholarly exchange with Muslim-majority countries

In the aftermath of US President Donald Trump’s 27 January executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, the international higher education community has been among the most vocal critics of the policy. University officials from around the country have issued statements condemning the ban and offering support to the more than 20,000 students and scholars from the affected countries currently studying in the United States. Graduate students from Iran, currently the 11th leading sending country to the US, make up the bulk of those affected by the executive order.

On 3 February, a federal judge issued a restraining order temporarily lifting the travel ban. And just this week, on 7 February, a federal appeals court heard arguments from both sides regarding the legality of the executive order. The court is expected to issue a further ruling later this week, but the case may ultimately make its way to the US Supreme Court.

Editor’s note: On 9 February, a US federal appeals court ruled to uphold the suspension of the travel ban. This means that any travel restrictions imposed by the ban are no longer in effect, pending further appeal by the White House. While the ban remains lifted, it is also true that the US administration’s moves to curtail travel to the US has triggered widespread confusion and uncertainty with respect to US border controls.

A 9 February report from The Chronicle of Higher Education adds, “Administrators at universities around the country expressed relief at the news of [the US appeals court] ruling. They remained cautious, however, about the uncertain future of Mr. Trump’s executive order, and about the order’s long-term ramifications, whether or not it is permanently overturned.”

Educators respond

In the days following the announcement, members of the higher education community criticised the ban for the disruption and uncertainty it caused for students and scholars, as well as the general confusion surrounding the policy’s implementation and enforcement.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, said in a statement that “the order is stranding students who have been approved to study here and are trying to get back to campus, and threatens to disrupt the education and research of many others.”

Ms Coleman urged the White House to consider the wider impact the blanket ban will have on higher education in the United States, including its effect on international student recruitment:

“We also urge the Administration, as soon as possible, to make clear to the world that the United States continues to welcome the most talented individuals from all countries to study, teach, and carry out research and scholarship at our universities. It is vital to our economy and the national interest that we continue to attract the best students, scientists, engineers, and scholars. That is why we have worked closely with previous administrations, especially in the wake of 9/11, to ensure our visa system prevents entry by those who wish to harm us, while maintaining the inflow of talent that has contributed so much to our nation.”

Higher education institutions and higher education associations around the country issued similar statements. Esther Brimmer, CEO and executive director of NAFSA, spoke directly to the international community when she said:

“To the students, scholars, doctors, refugees, family members, and others who wonder if the United States has lost its commitment to its core values as a nation of freedom, opportunity, and welcome, let me unequivocally state that American citizens will not tolerate policies such as these that undermine our values and endanger our safety.”

Among the many responses offered by individual institutions throughout the country, Wheaton College, a small liberal arts college on the outskirts of Chicago, went so far as to announce a new scholarship for refugee students in response to the travel ban.

Now before the court

The executive order banned entry of citizens from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iraq to the United States for a period of 90 days. It also suspended the entire US refugee system for 120 days while the government “determine[s] what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States.” The order further bans refugees from Syria indefinitely.

More than 60,000 visas were reportedly revoked in conjunction with the ban, among them F-1 and J-1 visas for incoming international students and scholars. Current F-1 and J-1 visa holders from the seven countries who were travelling abroad were not allowed to return to the US, while students who were currently in the United States have been advised not to leave the country. Visits to the US by students’ family members have been similarly curtailed.

Immigration officials initially interpreted the ban to mean all citizens from the seven countries, including green card holders. Amid widespread protest, the Trump administration has subsequently eased its restrictions and some green card holders have been able to return to the United States.

Even with the ban suspended by the 3 February court order, uncertainty continues to prevail on US campuses. Many universities are urging students from the affected countries to avoid international travel for the near future. New York Institute of Technology, for instance, recommended “that anyone from the countries included in the Executive Order who are considering travel outside the United States, if possible, postpone their travels or consult with an immigration attorney.”

The fate of the policy will ultimately be determined in the US federal court system, likely at the level of the Supreme Court. The decision to suspend the ban was the result of a lawsuit brought forward by the states of Washington and Minnesota, which argued that the executive order hurts residents and local businesses

Washington State University, University of Washington, and the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges filed amicus briefs with the Seattle court. UW Vice President for Global Affairs Jeff Riedinger noted in the brief that the ban had an “immediate impact” on students and faculty at the university, which currently hosts 96 undergraduate and graduate students and 15 scholars from the seven countries.

Iranians most affected

The Institute of International Education (IIE) reports that there were more than 17,300 students from the seven countries enrolled in the US in 2015/16. A related report from The Chronicle of Higher Education highlights that Iranian students and scholars are disproportionately affected as they represent the majority of individuals coming from the countries impacted by the travel ban.

According to IIE, the majority of Iranian students in US higher education – nearly 78% – study at the graduate level. Of those, nearly half were enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programmes. IIE estimates that Iranian students contributed US$386 million to the US economy in 2016.

The United States has long been a top destination for Iranian students going abroad. Enrolment peaked in 1979/80 during the Iranian Revolution at more than 50,000, but then declined significantly over the next two decades to fall below 2,000 students by the end of the 1990s.

In a reflection of both the growing strength of the Iranian economy as well as persistent demand for advanced degrees among Iranian students, Iranian enrolment in the US has rebounded over the last ten years, with more than 12,000 Iranian students enrolled with American institutions in 2015/16. Even prior to the last month’s travel ban, however, Iranian students faced extra scrutiny when applying to study in the United States. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes:

“While President Trump has proposed that visitors from Iran be subject to ‘extreme vetting,’ Iranians already faced greater hurdles to obtaining a student visa than did most other international students. In part because of concerns about the possible military use of Iran’s nuclear-energy programme, Iranian students at American colleges are barred from studying fields such as nuclear engineering and often do not receive a visa that allows them to make more than one entry into the United States.”

The Atlantic also noted the potentially harmful effects the ban might have on science in the United States due to the concentration of Iranian students in STEM fields, cautioning that “the new policies could also isolate American institutions from major sources of foreign talent”:

“For years, Iran has led the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and so it is not unusual that Iranian scientists would face extra scrutiny from security officials, especially given concerns about nuclear proliferation in Iran. However, like the other countries affected by the ban, no immigrants from Iran have carried out terrorist attacks on US soil between 1975 and the end of 2015. And given the blanket nature of the ban, it affects many scientists who have nothing to do with nuclear research.”

Iran is increasingly recognised as a key emerging market for international student recruitment, especially for graduate programmes, due to a lack of domestic postgraduate capacity and a burgeoning college-age population. In a further reflection of the momentum toward internationalisation in Iranian higher education, and following the lifting of economic sanctions in 2016, Iran’s top higher education institutions have also been eager to establish partnerships abroad. The long-term impact of the ban on Iranian mobility to the United States remains to be seen as the matter plays out in the US courts.

Lasting impact?

Meanwhile, US educators are left to consider the potential long-term economic effects if the Trump administration ultimately prevails and the ban comes back into effect. The school selection site College Factual has estimated that a long-term ban could result in an economic impact of up to US$700 million, based on lost tuition and living expenditures.

Many experts, and a number of pre-election opinion surveys, had already anticipated the potentially negative impact Trump’s administration might have on international student recruitment in the United States, but the breadth and speed of the executive order still caught many in the higher education community off guard. As The Chronicle of Higher Education notes:

“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% 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.”

Besides the direct impact of little to no enrolment of students from the seven countries, the travel ban potentially has a wider impact on recruitment from the rest of the world, especially from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa. While the US higher education community has been trying to send the message the international students are still welcome, many students remain uncertain in the aftermath of the executive order.

Mohamed, an engineering student from Libya with permanent residency, says that he feels helpless in his current situation. He was planning to travel to Canada last week but had to cancel his plans due to the ban. “I personally feel stuck here, as I never want to go to a party that I’m not invited to,” he explains. “I’m just so far into my studies here that I can’t just leave.”

He says that although he has supportive people around him and the president of his university, located in upstate New York, personally reached out to him, he doesn’t feel that the majority of the US population wants him here.

He is concentrating on finishing his degree and then returning home to help his war-torn country recover: “I still have a big battle waiting for me in Libya. I’m just equipping myself with knowledge and resources to be able to fight. But I will always wish the best for this country that at some point I considered home.”

Another student, on high school exchange from Yemen, offers a perspective that speaks to the experience that attracts so many foreign students to the US: “I have met countless amount of amazing and successful Americans, fell in love with them, and learned so much from them. None of what I learned had a tiny amount of Trump’s message, not even the US constitution, which I am pretty sure I can tell him and his people so much about. He does not represent any of the great and real Americans I met. Those who valued me for me, for my passion, my love, my respect, and my peaceful message I brought with me. Not for my religion, my skin color, my sexual orientation, or my physical appearance.”

Experts warn that the ban may impact student mobility from other Muslim-majority countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, the latter of which is currently the third-largest sending market for the US. (Turkey and Kuwait are also in the top 20, according to IIE.) It could also impact enrolment from Indonesia, which currently has the largest Muslim population the world, as well as countries such as India that have significant Muslim minorities.

“The potential impact of the recent ban on seven Muslim countries could be severe for international enrollments at many higher education institutions,” says Dr Rahul Choudaha, co-founder of interEDGE. “The domino effect of this ban will result in a precipitous decline in international student enrolment from Muslim-majority countries.”

The Trump administration has also made moves to overhaul the current H-1B work visa scheme and the Optional Practical Training (OPT) programme, which allows foreign graduates of US institutions to work in their field of study for up to one year in most disciplines and up to 36 months in STEM fields. Recent reports suggest that further executive orders related to OPT and work visas may be announced soon.

“If the executive order of limiting legal immigration and reversing OPT extension comes into force, it would result in many international students opting-out of the United States as a preferred destination of choice. As international student recruitment moves to a phase of hyper-competition, American higher education institutions cannot afford to lose OPT, which is one of the attractive elements for international students aiming to study in the US,” adds Dr Choudaha.

For additional background on the current recruitment landscape in the US, please see:



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