Higher Education in the Crosshairs of Trump’s Travel Ban

Trump’s travel ban hurts educational and cultural exchange. (Milosh Kojadinovich / 123rf.com)

Mike Pence was right. So was Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus, Mitch McConnell, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and even Dick Cheney. Sure, a few have now changed their tune as part of a Faustian pact. But all of these Republican leaders at one point rightly denounced Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban.” During the campaign, Gen. James Mattis said that implementing such a policy would indicate that “we have lost faith in reason.” Indeed, there is no compelling reason — even from an “America first” perspective — to implement the arbitrary restrictions put in place with President Trump’s executive order last Friday.

Whether you call it a “Muslim ban,” “extreme vetting” or Executive Order 13769, Trump’s order to block entry of valid visa holders from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days — plus an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees — has little to do with vetting, extreme or otherwise. We had and still have an extremely rigorous vetting process in place for refugees and those applying for visas from these seven countries. Trump’s executive order does nothing to change or improve those vetting processes.

Instead of “extreme vetting,” the best term to apply to the order is “arbitrary.”

Arbitrary (adj.): “based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system. Capricious, whimsical.” The opposite of reasoned or rational. And, as applied to power or a ruling body, autocratic and undemocratic.

Along with the families, tech workers, and others arbitrarily impacted by the order are international students. According to Department of Homeland Security data on F1 and M1 student visas compiled by College Factual, “there are 23,763 students studying in the USA who are affected by this travel ban, the majority of whom are from Iran.” The report notes, “International students from these countries have grown steadily over the past five years.” And that should come as little surprise to anyone that understands the draw and value of an American university education for students from countries plagued by political turmoil and conflict. It’s their ticket to a better future.

As a professor, I spent the past three years teaching at Carnegie Mellon University’s branch campus in Doha, Qatar. On a campus of just over 400 students, roughly 40 different nationalities are represented from regions that include the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa, South Asia, East Asia and beyond. As part of their education, we encourage students from the Doha campus to spend a semester studying at the university’s home campus in Pittsburgh. In addition, we facilitate spring break exchanges between the campuses, as well as other learning-oriented trips to the US. This cultural interchange is an invaluable component of the educational experience for both our international students visiting Pittsburgh and our American students visiting Doha. Neither America nor the world benefits from less cultural interchange, less communication across cultures and borders. But that is one of the resulting outcomes of this executive order.

President Trump’s travel ban needlessly puts up arbitrary barriers for international students studying at American universities, including graduate students involved in research. It further impacts faculty from these countries working in the US. Given the threat of detention or deportation that someone with a valid US visa faces if they leave the country and return, many foreign nationals on the banned list are unable to travel to international conferences or visit family at the risk of not being able to return to their jobs in the US.

The arbitrary nature of the ban also impacts foreign nationals beyond the current list of seven countries. I have colleagues from other Muslim majority nations not currently on the list that are now concerned about international travel; it is entirely possible that their country could be added with little warning and they wouldn’t be able to return to the US. The irony is that the travel ban has done as much to trap foreign nationals inside the US as it has to keep them out. But that is the nature of arbitrary orders born of tough-sounding rhetoric rather than genuine policy considerations.

Keep in mind that the students and professors impacted by this policy make valuable contributions not just to science and knowledge, but to the American economy. The economic impact of foreign students alone, according to College Factual, tops $700 million. As quoted in The New York Times, Soumya Raychaudhuri, a professor at Harvard Medical School, summarizes the impact of this policy: “There are other countries competing for this talent pool, and walking away from that jeopardizes our standing.”

In fact, Iran is already ramping up its propaganda to stem its own brain drain to US universities. As Abbas Milani, Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, explained on KQED’s Forum, “The Iranian regime is actually using the ban for its own propaganda purposes. They have announced, for example, that anybody who was accepted to a top-20 university in the United States and is not going to be allowed to come in, they will give them free education at the best university in Iran.”

The truth is that the US greatly benefits from the brain drain impacting countries like Iran and others. As a global hub for innovation and education, the United States has traditionally attracted the best and brightest from around the world — both students and immigrants. In turn, their impact on US society is invaluable.

The current president of Carnegie Mellon University is a case in point. In a recent email sent to the university community, Subra Suresh recalled how he “first came to the US at age 21 with a partially filled suitcase, less than $100 in cash, and a one-way airplane ticket purchased with a loan.” He noted, “I was able to pursue a series of extraordinary opportunities for scholarship and service without regard for my national origin — an experience that forged in me an unshakeable faith in the ability of this nation to help everyone to succeed, wherever they came from.” Suresh went on to head the National Science Foundation before leading Carnegie Mellon University.

But this executive order is not bad policy simply because it negatively impacts higher education or the American economy. It’s wrong because it effectively instantiates the type of “Muslim ban” called for by President Trump on the campaign trail and recognized by so many in his own party as contrary to American values. Using national origin as a proxy for religion does not negate the intent of the executive order (clearly on display in Trump’s statement about prioritizing Christians over Muslims). The fact remains that fully vetted visa holders — students, workers, families, refugees — have been arbitrarily targeted due to their national origin. Downplaying the number of individuals impacted, as President Trump has tried to do, does not justify setting aside democratic norms or implementing a policy that has no rational basis.

NPR’s Deb Amos explains how refugee vetting actually works. (NPR / YouTube)