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A Broken Bridge: How the travel ban is affecting international students

The Chilling Effect

It’s been five years since Pooria Manoochehri immigrated to the U.S. — and five years since he’s seen his parents. Like most university students, Manoochehri would like to head home for a few weeks during winter break, but that option isn’t available to him.

He said that he feels like there is a hole in his heart caused by the separation from his family, and that he struggles to remember the feeling of being with them.

“The sad part is when you forget that feeling,” Manoochehri said. “Retrieving that feeling — that happens the moment you see them. You understand what you’ve been missing for a long time.”

Manoochehri is pursuing his third master’s degree at the University of Oregon and works as a graduate employee in UO’s Division of Equity and Inclusion. He is also from Iran, which is one of the countries subject to the Trump administration’s executive order commonly referred to as the “travel ban.”

Pooria Manoochehri is a graduate employee in UO’s Division of Equity and Inclusion. He was born in Tehran, Iran and immigrated to America in 2013 to begin graduate studies at UO. Manoochehri says he hasn’t seen his family since immigrating and fears that he wouldn’t be able to return to America if he visited them in Iran. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

The executive order forbids nationals from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen from entering the U.S.

According to Dennis Galvan, UO vice provost for International Affairs, there are approximately three to four dozen students at the UO from these countries.

The level of travel restrictions varies for each country on the list, ranging from banning all nationals — as is the case for North Korea and Syria — to only banning certain members of government, as is the case for Venezuela.

Although the ban is aimed at barring entry for people the Trump administration deems security threats, it often prevents travel to and from the U.S. for people who pose no threat, including some students, according to Galvan.

“The actual impact of the legally, narrowly constructed ban is one thing, and the chilling effect is another thing,” said Galvan. “With the chilling effect, we have this thing where consular officials — people who issue visas at embassies worldwide — are told to be extra cautious and exercise more scrutiny. And then we have students from non-travel ban countries who are being denied visas for reasons we don’t really have any clue about.”

Galvan says the extra scrutiny from consular officials causes long visa delays for students who have been accepted into American schools, regardless of the country they’re from.

“That’s happening more than it used to, and we’re seeing a few students, after they get into this delayed processing, being denied a visa,” he said.

Galvan explained that UO’s Office of International Affairs has limited abilities to help students experiencing visa problems in other countries, and that the consular officials who review applications may deny them for reasons that aren’t clear. In these cases, UO can contact Oregon congressional members who can then lobby State Department officials to help approve a student’s visa application.

UO also created the Travel Ban Student Relief Fund to provide assistance to those “who demonstrate financial need based on impacts caused by the executive order.”  

Building a Bridge

Manoochehri fears that if he were to visit his family in Iran, he wouldn’t be able to get the student visa necessary to return. And if his parents tried to visit him, they would have to go through an arduous and expensive tourist visa application that could also end in denial, as some of his friends are painfully aware.

“I have a friend who got married without his parents being here and a friend who gave birth to her child without their parents present,” Manoochehri said. “These are things that nobody wants to miss, and it’s heartbreaking for people to be put in these positions.”

To alleviate the pain of being separated from his parents, Manoochehri tries to focus on completing his studies and gaining employment sponsorship for either a green card or work visa, which he hopes may one day lead to U.S. citizenship.

“There’s a lot of logic like — in the future I can be a bridge for them to come over here and live a better life,” he said.

But this path toward citizenship is a lengthy and uncertain process, which leaves Manoochehri in a difficult situation; he doesn’t know if all his time and effort will eventually allow him to reunite with his parents in the U.S.

“I wish it wasn’t me deciding between staying because, for five years, I’ve tried and tried hard, and built this life that I have,” he said. “It’s a huge decision.”

A Controversial Order

On Jan. 27, 2017, President Donald Trump issued the first version of the travel ban, officially titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.”

The ban prompted numerous lawsuits that challenged its constitutionality, based on litigants’ beliefs that it targeted Muslims.

In a UO press release published two days later, UO President Michael Schill condemned the travel ban and offered support to students.

“If you feel vulnerable and unwanted because of the U.S. president’s actions, please know that you are welcome and appreciated at the UO,” Schill wrote.

Manoochehri said he has felt welcome for most of his time at UO, but that he and his friends have experienced incidents of racism since the travel ban was issued.

While on campus this September, Manoochehri was headed to his last class of the day when an elderly man passed by and asked, “When are you guys going to go home?” Manoochehri told him, “Well, at 5 p.m.,” and the man replied, “Well I hope Trump sends you sooner than that.”

To which Manoochehri said, “Well I hope Trump talks to my teacher and she releases us sooner. That would be fantastic.”

Although he responded to the remarks with humor, Manoochehri was still hurt by the interaction.

“It’s not cool – you feel alienated in a second,” he said. “It washes away all the good things you see in this city and especially on campus, and you face the reality that’s out there.”

After months of protests, continued legal challenges in appellate courts and subsequent modifications to the travel ban, the Supreme Court allowed the executive order to go into full effect on Dec. 4, 2017, and upheld it in a 5-4 ruling on June 26 of this year.

Some UO students agree with the Supreme Court’s decision.

At a meeting of UO’s College Republicans, a few group members weighed in on the travel ban and its effects on international students. While they did express sympathy toward students who are struggling to immigrate to the U.S., they said they felt the travel ban is a justified security measure.

“I do think that the travel ban is a great tool for national security,” said Michael Kraan, the group’s treasurer. “It allows us to screen people who are coming to this country better, and it’s really hard to vet people from war-torn countries like Syria. I’m sure that there probably are some good students from those countries that get caught up in the process, but that’s kind of the price you have to pay for security.”

The Price

The U.S. remains the top destination country for international students, with a total enrollment of about 1.1 million, but an Institute of International Education survey of 522 higher education institutions showed a nearly 7 percent decline in international student enrollment in fall 2017.

Compared to 2016, when international enrollment decreased 3.3 percent from the prior year, survey participants were more likely to attribute declines in enrollment to “visa delays and denials, the costs of U.S. higher education and the U.S. social and political climate.”

At UO, 2,303 international students are enrolled for the 2018 fall term, a decrease of about 15 percent from a year ago.

(Regan Nelson/Emerald)

Galvan said there are multiple factors for decreases in international enrollment, including a strong U.S. dollar and slow economic growth in China, where a majority of UO international students are from. But he added that it still “stands to reason that U.S. immigration policy is part of it.”

While international students add billions of dollars each year to the U.S. economy, they can also receive significant investments from state and federal governments.

Manoochehri said that he has never paid tuition at UO due to scholarships and his graduate employee positions.

“This is an investment that the university, the state and the government in general have made on me studying and becoming a professional,” said Manoochehri. “And this travel ban and the whole drama it’s bringing, it makes me want to just leave this country.”

He noted that this sentiment is shared by many other international students he has spoken with.

“It’s not only me,” said Manoochehri. “It’s all the other people that are getting degrees here that are thinking about leaving because of a sort of betrayal feeling — like I came here, I’m paying taxes, I’m trying to become a professional, and I hope to get a job, and give back. And why would you want to deny one of my human rights to be with my family?”

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Brad Moore

Brad Moore