Universities Grapple With Trump's Executive Order On Immigration

Jan 30, 2017
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At universities across the country, students and administrators are protesting President Trump's recent executive order restricting entry to the U.S. from seven majority-Muslim nations. Some foreign-born students and professors are stuck abroad, and in the U.S., many more are worried that the order will have wide-ranging impacts on academia. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: There are stories from campuses around the nation. Two professors from Iran trying to get back to UMass Dartmouth were detained in Boston. A Ph.D. student at NYU was denied re-entry to the U.S. after living here for eight years. And an Iranian scientist due to start new research at Harvard is now wondering if he ever will. They're just a handful of more than 15,000 students studying in the U.S. from the seven affected countries.

MARY SUE COLEMAN: This executive order is causing considerable chaos on our campuses.

SMITH: Mary Sue Coleman of the Association of American University says it's not only bad for individuals involved, but she says it's also bad for the nation.

COLEMAN: There's a lot of concern, and I think the spillover effects will be very damaging to the U.S. ultimately.

THOMAS MICHEL: To keep America great, I think we need to ensure that the best and the brightest continue to want to come here, and that is under direct threat.

SMITH: Harvard Medical School professor Thomas Michel hired an Iranian scientist, Sohail Saravi (ph), to work in his lab on how diabetes affects the way cells talk to one another in the cardiovascular system. Michel says Saravi got a visa after many months of vetting, but his visa was suspended this weekend.

MICHEL: He is the top young scientist of his generation in the life sciences in Iran. He's not taking a job away from anyone. He is actually going to make contributions I think are unique.

SMITH: The Trump administration says the order is necessary - at least temporarily - to re-evaluate the immigration vetting process and re-secure the nation's borders. But critics say it sends a horrible message that the U.S. is not a welcoming place to study or work.

WILLIS WANG: People are in shock. It is understandably unnerving - not only are international student and scholar community directly but everyone in this community.

SMITH: Willis Wang is Boston University's associate provost for global programs. He spent the past few days helping to counsel international students. On a practical level, he says, BU's advising those already here not to risk leaving. But on a more personal level, he says, there's little the school can say that's really reassuring.

WANG: It's hard. We've been providing something as simple as a warm shoulder to cry on.

SMITH: Wang, the son of immigrants himself, says the ban undermines the most fundamental principles of this nation as a haven for refugees and a land of opportunity. That's how Lubna Omar, a Syrian professor at Binghamton University, always saw America. But she says the travel ban is now making her question everything.

LUBNA OMAR: Oh, God, yeah. I spent the whole night, like, trying to figure out, like, it's going to affect me. And it happened really fast. It's kind of scaring me a lot.

SMITH: Omar says the travel ban will now make it impossible to continue her work as an anthropologist. But on a personal level, she says, she has even bigger concerns.

OMAR: If this is the first wave of, you know, orders and then if there will be a next step next targeting the people who are already in - so I'm dreading it, but after what happened this weekend, maybe I should, you know, start thinking about moving to another place. It's just really sad.

SMITH: As one academic put it, that is really bad news. We need them as much as they need us. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.