Immediately after President Trump issued his first executive order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” signed on January 27, 2017, the internet was a flurry of conversations, wailing, railing, and questions concerning the E.O. After short-term visitor visas, International students and scholars make up what is the largest group of non-immigrant internationals present in the United States at any given time, with some 880,000 F and J visas being issued last year alone. They, rightfully, wanted to know what it all meant for them; for the future of their studies, jobs, and family life.
Sadly, everyone everywhere seemed to have formulated and shared an opinion, but few had any real knowledge in the areas of immigration and international students and scholars. Pundits and lay-pundits prognosticated the racism and tragic effects this order would reign down on these poor, unwitting pawns in Trump’s malevolent plan. Reports of mass deportation of international students, being trapped or turned away at the border, and the rise of a racist culture around them were being circulated online, in the news, and among community groups who support this population. Emotions were charged and hyperbole about the order gave birth to fear, anger, and a great deal of misinformation.
The truth about the first executive order as it pertains to international students, and the second one as well, should have been portrayed like this: We don’t have all the details yet about how this executive order will be implemented, so patience and clear communication will be necessary in the upcoming days. What we do know is that if you are a citizen or resident of one of the seven countries of concern, and you are in the U.S. right now, we advise that you not travel outside the U.S. for at least the next 90 days, especially if you do not have a valid visa, as U.S. consulates are not issuing new visas for the next 90 days. Without a currently valid visa, traveling at this time will most certainly delay your return for at least 90 days. If you must travel for work or research, contact your international adviser at your school immediately. If you are currently outside the U.S. with a valid visa to return, contact your international adviser at the university for help to ensure you are granted entry into the U.S.; an adviser can elicit the assistance of their local congressman and/or the Student and Exchange Visitor Program to help you. If you are an international student from a country which is not on the list, you should be aware that when you renew your visa, you will be required to have an interview in-person.
And that is all that needed to be said to the public. Anything more was simply an opportunistic political rant that hyped-up fear and misunderstanding among an already vulnerable population. Immigration programs, systems, and practice change regularly, and the professionals in the field are alerted in turn, and then quietly go about helping students under new guidelines. This time was different. This time was volatile.
The day after the order was signed, a pastor’s wife with an outreach to a large local population of international students posted this on Facebook:
“To all of our Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian friends — along with you, we are dismayed to see the recent executive order halting entrance to the U.S. of all those from these nations who are law-abiding, hard-working students with hopes and dreams for completing their education and beginning a new life upon graduation. … We are offended that you are grouped into a category that you do not belong in.”
She was wrong. The 67 consequential comments that followed demonstrated the confusion, fear, and misinformation that is stirred up by peddling a personal agenda, and not looking out for the best interests of these students. In addressing the ban in relation to people who were already studying in the U.S. with valid visas, who were most likely to remain unaffected by the 90-day “travel ban”, she created a culture of anxiety and gave a forum to racism. Her attempt to be supportive backfired by actually communicating that they were not safe and that the U.S. government was somehow “out to get them”. If nothing else, it communicated that they were being treated unfairly.
On January 30th, the Virginia Pilot posted the following headline, "About 50 students, 1 faculty member at Old Dominion University affected by Trump’s immigration ban", which begs the question of how they were affected. The article itself goes on to say that the university’s spokesperson stated that, “to the university’s knowledge, none of the students or faculty had been blocked from entering the U.S., were stranded overseas or traveling to the seven countries named in the executive order.”
A more accurate account would report that ODU has 51 people who are residents of the seven affected countries, and that if they had been traveling outside the U.S. without a valid visa to return, then they could be affected by Trump’s immigration ban; but none of those qualifiers were true for any of them. Misleading the public has become a rampant problem concerning this order and its effects on international students.
Some have claimed that the ban is affecting them because their family members are not able to come to the United States to visit them, a scenario often thrown around these days, and noted in Hawaii’s lawsuit to block the second executive order. However, this argument does not take into consideration that there is no guarantee of being granted a visitor visa for family visits, especially not from these particular countries which have for a very long time been under exceptional scrutiny concerning visa issuance. The United States does not maintain an embassy or consulate in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iran, or Somalia, protracting the difficulty of obtaining a visa. Instead, the State Department has “virtual embassies” for these countries, since it is either too dangerous for Americans to live there or the U.S. has been expelled from the country. There are current travel advisories for each of these seven countries on the State Department’s website, which have been in place for years, sometimes decades. They are each also considered to either be state sponsors of terrorism and/or terror groups have a “significant presence” in the country or area. Considering the difficult diplomatic relationship the United States has historically maintained with these countries, obtaining a visa is already difficult, and has been difficult long before Trump announced his candidacy for president. None of these facts have stopped the Trump opposition from spinning the situation to their agenda, nor even made them stop to consider how they might be hurting their own cause.
The most disturbing backlash has been unleashed by the international education community themselves; institutions of higher education and education associations inappropriately drumming up paranoia about what was about to happen to these students. The Chronicle of Higher Education has run a series of articles about Trump’s immigration plans, not one of which spins a strain of sobriety into the story. One article published just two days after the executive order delineates the actions and rhetoric against the order from various institutions who are pounding their chests and demanding a retraction of the order. The Chronicle does not attempt to be unbiased with articles entitled: "Colleges Scramble After Trump's Executive Order Bans Citizens of 7 Muslim Countries", "Shock, Despair, and Outrage: Academics Condemn Trump’s Immigration Crackdown", "Disruption and Uncertainty Ripple Across a Discipline", "How One University Is Contending With the Aftermath of Trump’s Travel Ban", "An ‘America First’ Presidency Clashes With Higher Ed’s Worldview", "‘It Can’t Stop Here — It Needs to Become Something More’", — and these are just the articles issued within the first seven days of the travel ban.
One of the articles written just four days after the order was signed, "Here Are 7 People Whose Lives Were Changed by the Travel Ban", attempted to show that the E.O. was already “upending” students lives, yet each described a situation that was either blown out of proportion, or their decision not to travel was based on unwarranted fear, not reality. Some were U.S. permanent residents who, after clarification from DHS, were clearly exempt from any travel ban. One Yemeni student lamented that she would not be able to visit her husband and children in Yemen this summer, and possibly not for the next four years, even though the order was signed in January and was clearly limited to just 90 days; a woman who voluntarily postponed her travel plans in December due to civil war in her country. And the list goes on similarly; none of the people in the article had a legitimate case of their lives being upended, nor deeply affected in any way. Their fears were purely driven by misinformation.
The most prominent international education association in the United States, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, issued a statement from its current CEO, Esther D. Brimmer, saying that “As many as 17,000 students or their families who are currently studying in the U.S.A. are affected.” This number indicates the total number of international students enrolled in U.S. schools from the countries of concern, not the number who actually are affected in any meaningful way. She later clarified that “You might have students who went home for the holidays, who went out of the country. They might in effect be trapped and denied re-entry to the U.S. immediately after this order is signed. We could have scholars who would come to conferences this spring who would be denied entry.” These students were not asked to leave the U.S., they did not lose their jobs, they weren’t forced to disrupt their schooling, and they were granted entry with a valid visa if they were returning to the U.S. This type of “what-if” scenario, that incidentally did not affect these students at all, is the very rhetoric being propagated in the press and on social media. The possibility of not being able to attend a conference is not comparable to the possibility of allowing a terrorist into the United States; the devastation of each eventuality should not be equated.
The publication Inside Higher Ed, in an article entitled "We Must #Resist", also called for “higher education to fight back against fascism and tyranny” in light of the first executive order, referencing xenophobia and anti-immigrant government policies. This is an unprecedented and unwarranted degree of focus and attention by the higher education community on our international students and scholars.
One of the downsides of all this attention is that most people don’t understanding the complexities of how this works. International students are issued visas to come to the U.S. up to six months before their first semester begins, but are only allowed to enter the U.S. within 30 days of their start date. They are required to study on-campus, so they must report to the school on time. Depending on the country of citizenship, the visa may expire while still in school, but most student visas are issued for the duration of their degree program. If the visa expires while still attending school, students are not required to leave the U.S., but if they choose to leave the country (for vacation, conferences abroad, etc.), then they must renew their visa before returning. The first E.O. was issued on January 27th, after the vast majority of universities had begun their Spring semester, when international students were required to report on campus by law. The second E.O. was issued on March 6th, again a date after which most international students should have checked in on campus even if the university was on a trimester or 8-week course schedule. All these students, (save rare exceptions) would already have been in possession of their student visas and traveled to the U.S. In reality, potential students, not current students, were most likely to be affected by the 90 day ban. Those who intended to study in the U.S. for the first time in the Summer may not be able to obtain a visa on time.
Although there were early reports that a few students had not yet returned to campus because the semester began later than January 27th, there were relatively few students in this situation, and the Department of Homeland Security quickly issued clarification that these students would be admitted. According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), none were denied entry. The executive order is a ban on issuing visas from the U.S. consulates abroad, not a ban on entry by those who have valid visas already. This was not clear in the language of the first E.O, but within days DHS and CBP had clarified who would be admitted, including permanent residents, students, and scholars who had valid visas. You would not know this from the hype. The lingering lawsuits by several states threaten to further delay visa issuance, preventing far more students from enrolling in the Fall semester.
Furthermore, Customs and Border Protection regularly questions, detains, and investigates internationals at the border. If CBP determines inadmissibility while standing at the border, it has the legal right and duty to deny entry and deport. They identify approximately 877 individuals with suspected national security concerns every day. These actions are no new thing, however the press is now reporting every person detained or questioned at the border as they never did under any other administration, making it seem as though this is a discriminatory “crackdown” since Trump came into office. This is what is disingenuous about those who work in international education; they know how this works, and they know that in reality not much is new at the border, but they cannot pass up this opportunistic climate to distort the truth.
The Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) published a press release on January 30, 2017, over-dramatizing the impact of restricting issuance of new visas for 90 days from six terrorist countries, comparing being questioned and possibly detained for several hours by Customs and Border Protection, or less likely, delaying travel plans by a few months, as “human tragedies” having “pernicious and lasting effects”.
The statement then goes on to contradict itself by stating that they fancy their mission as “bridge building between disparate perspectives”, but cannot muster tolerance for the President’s perspective, or that of CBP, which may be more informed on issues of national security.
The mantra heard across the land, and spreading across the world, is that this is a racist Muslim ban. The reality is that the executive order does not mention Muslims, nor Islam; the fact is that all people from various religious backgrounds from these countries are banned for 90 days. Last year, the U.S. enrolled over 100,000 students from 19 Middle Eastern and North African countries, over 60,000 from Saudi Arabia alone, all Muslim. Even though Trump’s second executive order on immigration takes great pains to explain the motivation behind temporarily banning these particular six countries, due to terrorist activities, reduced from seven due to cooperation from Iraq in vetting, The American Association of State Colleges and Universities has issued the following statement:
“The president’s new executive order on immigration — albeit an improvement over the original order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries — remains overly broad in scope and threatens to adversely impact higher education in America. While we understand and respect the president’s stated goal of securing our homeland, we also believe that a categorical ban on the entry of individuals based purely on national origin will undermine the ability of our public institutions to attract the best minds to teach and study at our state colleges and universities.”
They have called on their constituent international educators to not remain silent but to “advocate for the flow of people and exchange”, which indicates their resistance to honoring a Presidential order meant to protect the American people. In fact, this will indeed adversely impact higher education, but mainly in their pocketbooks. NPR reported:
“While opposition to a travel ban by most U.S. colleges and universities is about academic freedom and diversity, it’s also very much about protecting their budgets. Higher education in America relies, in part, on foreign students, who often pay full fare, helping universities to meet budgets and subsidize American students.”
In a recent interview with NAFSA Executive Director Esther Brimmer, NPR asked the question, “Foreign students often pay full fare, which helps subsidize U.S. students. Isn’t there a potential huge economic impact of all this?” The NAFSA answer came back, “Indeed. While we stress the intellectual impact, there is an important economic impact as well.” She mentioned that these internationals contribute $32 billion annually to our economy, most of which is deposited into the universities’ coffers.
The Chronicle of Higher Education now reports that one in three international applicants is reluctant to study in America because of the “political climate”. Forty percent of institutions are reporting that international student applications have recently decreased, which could be due to multiple factors, but certainly indicates that internationals are scared away by the rhetoric of fear and hatred. The Left will easily blame Trump for this rhetoric due to his comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and illegal immigrants, but the culpability must be shared by those who exaggerate his comments, and drive the propaganda of false information and disastrous ramifications.
Higher education has flooded the market with a barrage of hyped up articles, press releases, and social media postings bemoaning the evils and racism of this executive order. So many are quick to criticize the President for his language and exaggerations, which by all account should be reigned in, however few are willing to examine their own language and exaggerations concerning the government’s efforts to revamp security screening measures and how they might keep all of us safer. It is irresponsible to send these students into a frenzy of mistrust and feelings of victimization. Just like American parents who want assurances of their child’s safety when they attend a study abroad program, the parents of international students are just as concerned with their child’s safety when they send him/her to the United States. We owe it to them to ensure that we have safe borders and campuses. Educators are allowing politics, and the possible temporary loss of a few dollars, to cloud their judgement in not taking measured steps or using measured language in communicating with international students, international applicants, and the public at large. They stand to lose more students and more money as a result. Perhaps education professionals should also adopt and adhere to the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm”.