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U.S. Selective Ban on Visas Shuts Out Arab Students

U.S. President Donald Trump’s order to ban entry to the United States for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries has provoked a wave of protests from academics, human-rights advocates, and organizations supporting refugees.

The order could ultimately affect as many as 17,000 Arab and Iranian students enrolled at U.S. institutions, who will be unable to leave the country without being prevented from returning. The order is also expected to discourage prospective Arab and Iranian students from applying to U.S. universities.

Indiana University at Bloomington has one of the highest foreign enrollments among American institutions: 8,000 out of 47,000 total enrollments. John Wilkerson, director of international admissions, says Indiana, like many universities, is worried the order could deter foreign students from applying in the future.

Indiana is already thinking about ways to counter the “perception of the United States as a very negative place for foreign students,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Mr. Trump issued the executive order on Friday, immediately barring entry to the United States for the next 90 days for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The order also bars refugees of any nationality for the next four months, and refugees of war-torn Syria indefinitely.

The White House seemed to backtrack on one element of the order on Sunday, with one official saying the order would not freeze out U.S. permanent residents with “green cards”—a change that might help graduate students or professors from the seven countries who have obtained such residency. Two court orders over the weekend may also undermine, in a limited way, early efforts to enforce the ban.

But, in the end, the prospects for potential students from the seven Muslim countries for enrolling in U.S. universities and obtaining a student visa this spring have dimmed—if not completely ended.

The executive order says the moves were made “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” Critics say it will do more harm than good by hurting America’s image and ability to work with allies in the Muslim world.

The order has caused “enormous collateral damage,” said Esther D. Brimmer, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which calls itself the world’s largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education.

In a statement, Brimmer said “Universities and colleges have already begun reporting cases of students and scholars stranded after traveling for reasons including studying abroad, attending conferences, and visiting sick or dying family members.”

Brimmer added that Mr. Trump’s order will be “perceived around the world as a thinly veiled attempt to target Muslim-majority countries.” It risks “alienating friends and allies,” thereby undermining U.S. efforts to work with allies in the Islamic world.

About two thirds of the 17,000 students coming from the seven named countries are from Iran, according to the latest “Open Doors” report on the numbers of foreign students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2015-2016 academic year.

Many U.S. institutions, including the University of California system, Princeton University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have issued warnings to their students and academics who are citizens of the seven countries, calling on them to put off any plans to travel outside the United States.

Taha Shanqeer, a Libyan engineer who works for an information technology company in Houston, Texas and has been preparing for graduate studies in the United States says the order left him shaken and uncertain about his future in America. “I cannot travel now because I am not sure if I can come back,” he says. “My family will not be able to come and visit me either. I am not sure if we will be welcomed in the job market here anymore… Trump has turned everything upside down in two weeks.”

Beth Baron, a professor of Middle East history at the City University of New York and president of the Middle East Studies Association, said the order has created “a lot of confusion.” Among other unresolved questions, she said, is the fate of dual nationals who are, for example, citizens of both one of the seven countries and the United States, Canada, or a European country.

“The more we know about the [Middle East] region, the more we are able to make wise decisions about policy,” said Ms. Baron. “Cutting off students and scholars and research in the region is not in our interest.”

Two days after Mr. Trump issued the order, a protest letter circulated at American universities had been signed by more than 7,000 academics including a number of Nobel Laureates.

The letter criticizes Mr. Trump’s order, saying it:

  • “discriminates against a large group of immigrants and longtime residents of the United States based solely on their country of origin,”
  • “places a harsh and undue burden on the people affected, needlessly and cruelly separating families by limiting travel and restricting entry,”
  • “would significantly damage the United States’ reputation for academic excellence in higher education.”

In the first two days after Mr. Trump’s order, there were large protests across the country, including at airports, where various people arriving from the seven countries with valid U.S. visas had been stopped by officials and detained. In Boston, a judge ruled that two university professors who are Iranian citizens should be released from detention at Logan International Airport.

On Saturday, a federal judge in New York issued a temporary ruling ordering the government not to remove from the U.S. any foreigners who had arrived with refugee or student visas or other authorization to be in the country.

It was unclear, however, whether the federal authorities would respect those rulings.

In addition, the attorneys general [top prosecutors] of 16 of America’s 50 states, including California, New York and Pennsylvania, issued a joint statement saying they would “use all of the tools of our offices to fight this unconstitutional order.”

Tarek Abd El-Galil contributed to this story.


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