Fatima, 28, is an anthropology student at a well-known American university. The lack of quality graduate programmes in her field back home in Pakistan brought her to the United States two years ago.
With US President Trump in office, things are different now from when Fatima first joined her course. On being asked if she would have applied to schools in countries other than the US today, she says, “I would definitely apply to schools in Canada, in addition to the US.”
An air of uncertainty persists after the initial travel ban — dubbed by many as a ‘Muslim ban’ — temporarily barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. While Pakistan was not on the list of countries targeted by the ban, it left international students from Muslim-majority countries fearing their mobility and entry into the US.
As has been largely documented, what followed was an outpour of support from American citizens who disagreed with the ban. “I think the resistance to the ban was very uplifting. Several friends of mine actively participated in the protests. Lawyers who have been representing those affected by the ban have stated that the public pressure brought on by the protests was of major help,” says Fatima.
A judge blocked the ban in early February 2017. Not one to back down, US President Trump started working on a revised executive order.
Many international students however were hesitant to actively participate in the demonstrations in January, especially the ones at airports. After the initial ban, Nisha, a Pakistani fine arts student in Hawaii, said, “There was a protest yesterday at the airport and I didn’t go to that, even though… the police [in Hawaii] is super friendly and supportive.” She added, “I was like, what if something happens?”
Nisha is not Muslim, but Hindu. While she does not think the ban will affect her the same way it does Muslims, she still feels she may be targeted owing to her Pakistani nationality.
Ayesha, a PhD student in Houston agrees that protesting as a foreign student can be tricky but adds that the role of international students in the resistance was vital. “…If we’re detained, there [are] very different implications for us than there are [for] US nationals. So I think we are a little more cautious about protesting at the airport; but otherwise, I think international students are very involved.”
"There was a protest yesterday at the airport and I didn’t go to that… I was like, what if something happens?"
“A lot of them [international students] are actually working to mobilise for either vigils or protests on campus. [We are talking] to administration and [asking] them if [they] can, for example, release a statement saying that they fully support all students that are at UT Health regardless of their immigration status…” she says.
Many students say they did not feel supported by their universities in the way they hoped to. "...I think the response by a number of universities has been a little disappointing," says Fatima. "In the initial statement sent out by my university the university President couldn’t even bring herself to use the word Muslim ban which is really what this is. You cannot offer any resistance if you are unwilling to even call out the problem for what it is."
Six weeks after the original executive order, Trump recently signed a new travel ban. The ban had a few changes, it no longer included travellers from Iraq. It also had clearer guidelines for Green Card holders, and travellers, students and businesspersons with existing valid US visas. But as the new order was set to take effect on Thursday, a federal court in Hawaii halted it.
The back and forth between Trump and the courts feels familiar. Yet, the ruling's temporarily block on the ban is not very reassuring; leaving students in a limbo.
In Ayesha’s experience, and indeed that of many others, entering the US for Muslims is difficult enough in the first place.
Ayesha was born in India and has lived in the Middle East for much of her life. She says obtaining her student visa was tough.
“My original student visa was stamped in Saudi [Arabia],” she says. “I had a lot of issues obtaining that visa... the American consulate informed me I needed extra security administrative processing, because my name popped up on this program that required extra vetting. And because of that, my visa process was dragged on for months.”
At that point, Ayesha did not know if her plans for studying in the US were feasible and she started looking at universities in the Middle East.
“I only ended up getting it [the visa] a few days before I was set to start school,” she says.
Ayesha’s parents still live in the Middle East, where she tries to visit them once a year. This year fear of the travel restrictions forced her to reconsider.
It seems that for the foreseeable future, a certain degree of uncertainty will be part and parcel of the US education experience for international Muslim students.
“I had scheduled to go back and visit my parents in May,” she said after the original executive order. “And right now, they cancelled the tickets, because they’re just afraid.”
Ayesha felt the ban may affect her education and career goals. “Because I’m a scientist, I go to a lot of conferences abroad. But for now... it looks like I’m mostly restrained to national conferences.”
Travelling is indeed an integral part of many academic disciplines. “Anthropology degrees require fieldwork,” says Fatima. “For many, this takes place outside the US. My fieldwork is in Lahore.”
It seems that for the foreseeable future, a certain degree of uncertainty will be part and parcel of the US education experience for international Muslim students. “I wanted a career in academia. That’s why I hoped to pursue a post doc and teaching positions in the US after finishing my PhD. Since my research is based in Pakistan I expected to move back and forth a lot,” Fatima adds.
The current climate is also getting students to reassess their future plans. “I plan to stay in the US after my PhD and work here. However, I am worried that will be very difficult for me since attaining an H1-B visa or any other work visa will be very difficult. They're already cracking down on decreasing immigration and work visas so now I am worried I won't be able to achieve my dreams or ambitions as I had planned,” says Ayesha.
Questions of belonging
Citizens from other Muslim-majority countries hoping to enter the US can take solace in the fact that the order — or at least the discussion around the impending order — does not directly impact them. The ban will, however, have very tangible repercussions for people from the countries mentioned.
Noha, 18, studies political science and Arabic at a university in New Jersey and plans to go to law school. Originally from Syria, she and her family immigrated to the US in 2012.
While Noha didn’t have any hopes of going back to Syria any time soon, she wanted to visit her aunt and cousin, who live in a refugee camp in Jordan.
“This summer I was planning to go with Syrian Medical Society [for] volunteering to Jordan... And I think it’s ruined now because of this ban. Because I have Green Card, and if I want to go, I don’t think I’ll be able to come back,” she said after the original executive order was passed.
Hessam Akhlaghpour, 28, an Iranian-American neuroscience student at Princeton University, also struggles with returning to his country of origin. While Akhlaghpour says he was 'lucky' enough to obtain US citizenship last year, the ban does not bode well for his community.
While the petition started amongst his friends in the Iranian student community, it grew into something bigger when 50 Nobel Laureates and an overwhelming number of academics signed onto the petition.
“I have friends who are stuck outside, who are just worried about continuing their studies here because they cannot visit their parents, they cannot come back,” Akhlaghpour says.
He adds that the Iranian government’s announcement of its own ban doesn’t help Iranian immigrants and dual citizens caught in the situation.
“Every time I go back [to Iran], I have to get permission to leave,” he says. “ ...Iranian students in the US [feel] like we don’t have a place we can call home. Nowhere’s really welcoming to [us].”
“Every time we want to travel back to Iran, we face so many obstacles, it makes our life very difficult,” he adds.
Akhlaghpour helped coordinate a petition against the ban called 'Academics against Immigration Executive Order'. While the petition started amongst his friends in the Iranian student community, it grew into something bigger when 50 Nobel Laureates and an overwhelming number of academics signed onto the petition.
But while widespread opposition against the ban has risen across the country, and indeed the legal community has stood in solidarity, international students fear for their safety and mobility in the current political climate.
They also stress that things have been bad for them for a while — with or without the ban. "The discrimination and harassment of people of colour and Muslims at airports will I fear continue — it was already happening before the EO as it is," says Fatima.
Header: Protestors gather outside Tom Bradley International Terminal during a protest against President Donald Trump's travel ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, at Los Angeles International Airport on January 29. — AP
The piece was updated to reflect a US federal court's decision to freeze the revised travel ban.