Shock, Despair, and Outrage: Academics Condemn Trump’s Immigration Crackdown

Academics nationwide this weekend swiftly condemned an executive order signed by President Trump that, among other things, bars citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States for at least 90 days.

Scholars voiced grave concerns about the order, which singled out people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and also suspended all refugee admissions to the United States for at least 120 days. Syrian refugees were barred indefinitely.

Many professors feared for students and colleagues who had left the country to do research or visit their families and now might not be able to return, even though they had green cards or visas. They wondered whether students from the affected countries who had recently been offered admission at U.S. institutions would still be able to come. And they worried about what sort of message the order would send to the rest of the world about American higher education.

When Milind Kulkarni, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University, heard fears on Saturday that the executive order might restrict travel for Iranian green-card holders, he thought immediately of friends, colleagues, and former students who would be affected. (A White House official said Sunday that green-card holders would not be barred from re-entering the United States, though it wasn’t clear whether all border agents were heeding that directive.)

"Their being in this country has enriched my life and my work," Mr. Kulkarni said. "I’ll be honest: There was sort of a sense of despair."

Professors who spoke with The Chronicle emphasized that the United States has long been seen as a scholarly haven where professors of all backgrounds can conduct research, teach, and speak freely, without fear of repercussions. "This is a country I adopted because I thought, I am free here, and I am treated just like anybody else," said Hazhir Rahmandad, an associate professor of system dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Mr. Rahmandad, Mr. Kulkarni, and thousands of other scholars signed a petition that describes the travel ban as "detrimental to the national interests of the United States" because it "significantly damages American leadership in higher education and research."

Babak Heydari, an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and one of the organizers of the petition, said signatures are still being added and that the group will continue to publicize and rally support for the statement.

"This is just pure discrimination, and it’s not right," said Erika Marín-Spiotta, an associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who also signed the petition. Geoscientists had already had a difficult week, Ms. Marín-Spiotta said, citing what she considered to be attacks on science and climate-change research by the Trump administration.

Mr. Trump’s order reflects that he doesn’t understand how American higher education works, said Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, and a petition signer. In particular, Mr. Dabashi said, the president appears ignorant of the fact that the global exchange of information, scholars, and students is essential to how colleges operate.

"They’re just shooting from the hip," he said of Mr. Trump and his advisers.

"If this transforms into more long-term isolationist policies on the part of the Trump administration," Mr. Dabashi added, "my fear is that it’ll have long-term structural effects on the health of our scholarship."

'So Much Emotional Distress'

Several professors noted that losing promising students to other countries will harm both academe and industry, as those graduates take their skills into the job market.

"These students are the work force for America," said Amir Houmansadr, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "People like me, who came to the country to study, are now working at top companies or teaching at top-tier universities in this country."

For some academics, like MIT’s Mr. Rahmandad, the order hit especially close to home.

Mr. Rahmandad was born in Iran and completed his undergraduate degree there. As a naturalized American citizen, he was safe. But two of his Iranian friends with green cards, both associate professors at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, were attending an academic conference in France when Mr. Trump signed the order. Mazdak Pourabdollah Tootkaboni and his wife, Arghavan Louhghalam, boarded a flight to Boston on Saturday and were detained for several hours upon arrival before being allowed to enter the country.

A federal judge in New York temporarily blocked part of the order late Saturday in response to a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU’s Massachusetts chapter then quickly filed a separate federal lawsuit on behalf of the professors, and Mr. Tootkaboni and Ms. Louhghalam were allowed to return home that night. Early Sunday, two judges in Massachusetts issued a seven-day restraining order against Mr. Trump’s executive order.

Despite that good news, Mr. Rahmandad was still somber. He estimated that 25 to 30 percent of this year’s applicants for his graduate program at MIT came from the seven affected countries. And his parents were planning to come to the United States from Iran in a few days to visit their grandchildren. Now they won’t be able to.

"There’s so much emotional distress around me," he said, speaking about his Iranian colleagues, friends, and family. "I have lived in a war for eight years in Iran, and I don’t think I was ever as stressed as I am right now. And I’m one of the lucky ones."

Mr. Rahmandad and other scholars who are from the countries affected by the order stressed that the travel ban would not make the United States any safer from terrorist attacks. Naghmeh Sohrabi, a professor of Middle East history at Brandeis University, said it would cost time and money to enforce, while not dealing with America's real national security concerns.

Others said that alienating a block of people based on their nationalities could fan fanaticism in their home countries. Shreyas Sundaram, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue, said academics he knows from the listed countries are often progressive and stand against the more extreme elements of their home nations. Banning those people, individuals who could promote ideas to tamp down extremism, could have an effect counter to what the administration intends, he said.

No Longer Welcoming?

After the initial outrage, many scholars were also starting to think about what to do next. Signing a petition against the executive order was a "first step," Ms. Sohrabi said. "There comes a time when you have to take your head out of your books and your computers," she said. "We can be heard, we can try to come out, as some people say, on the right side of history."

Scholars need to continue speaking out against the travel ban, said Jenny J. Lee, a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.

"Whatever will become of the travel ban, the current administration has already well demonstrated that in the new era of post-truth, reason and rationalism are under threat," Ms. Lee wrote in an email. "There is no fact-based evidence to support the travel ban, yet it was attempted with considerable support from particular segments of the public."

Other professors and college students were among the thousands of people who protested over the weekend at airports around the country. In the crowd at Dulles International Airport on Sunday was Sauleh Siddiqui, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. Originally from Pakistan, Mr. Siddiqui came to the United States in 2003 to attend Franklin & Marshall College. He stayed. Then, this fall, just two weeks before Donald Trump’s election, he became an American citizen.

"I always thought this country was very welcoming. Some place where, you know, I felt I had value," he said, as he stood with protesters waiting for those detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to emerge. "But since the election, that thought has been jolted. So, I’m here today, because even though I am a U.S. citizen, I could have easily been walking through that door."

Hundreds of others turned to social media to offer any help that stranded scholars might need. Some people at foreign institutions offered lab space, offices, and guest rooms that such scholars could use temporarily. Academics in the United States offered to look after pets, and retrieve cars that those individuals had left at U.S. airports.

Jennifer Golbeck, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland at College Park, is coordinating some of those efforts through a Twitter account she created, the Freedom of Science Network. Ms. Golbeck made the account last week to support government scientists and help them find new jobs in case they were fired for defying the gag orders put in place by the Trump administration.

She said she’s heard from academics across Western Europe and as far away as Singapore and Australia who want to help professors who can’t get back into the States.

"It’s sad that I have to be doing this," Ms. Golbeck said. "But obviously there is a big community in the U.S. and outside the U.S. who agree that it’s a horror and want to do something about it."

Ms. Sohrabi said this could also be a time for colleges to rethink their protocols related to students, such as by granting them flexibility to extend their stays, and generally finding ways to be "creative in protecting vulnerable students."

"On some level," she said, "I do feel very helpless. You have an Ivy League education, you teach at these universities, you think you have some power."

Mr. Heydari, one of the petition organizers, said he hoped this executive order was a "blip." Then, he said, "we can all go back to our research."

But many scholars were concerned that the order would be just the first manifestation of Mr. Trump’s divisive campaign rhetoric. Mr. Kulkarni, one of the Purdue professors, referred to recent incidents where the United States closed its borders to ethnic or racial groups as some of the "darkest moments of the nation’s history," he said. "Shameful episodes."

"It’s hard to shake the feeling that this might be the beginning of another one."