Students and scholars in the Arab region, along with American university leaders, welcomed the decision of the new U.S. president, Joseph R. Biden, Jr., to end the Trump administration’s so-called “Muslim ban.” That ban stopped most people from several predominantly Muslim countries—including Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Iran—from entering the United States.
“Now I feel there is hope for a new path,” said Rana Shaban, a Syrian physician living in Istanbul, Turkey. Because of her Syrian passport, her previous plans to go to America to complete a Ph.D. were dashed.
The change in policy is “a vital component of restoring the confidence of international students and scholars as they choose whether to study and contribute to U.S. campuses, our economy, and our communities,” said Esther D. Brimmer, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. NAFSA describes itself as “the world’s largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education.”
Students from most of the targeted countries (though not Syrians) were granted exemptions from the ban, but approval of their visas was slowed down, and publicity surrounding the ban discouraged many Arab students from applying for a U.S. visa. (See a related article, “U.S. Selective Ban on Visas Shuts Out Arab Students”).
When the ban went into effect, it caused a lot of hardship, international educators said, including for students from countries included in the ban who were already enrolled in American universities and got trapped outside of the United States. “We literally had students in the air or in Canada returning to campus who were stopped and turned back,” says Josh Taylor, New York University’s associate vice chancellor for global programs and mobility services
After several weeks of frantic efforts, the university managed to retrieve the affected students. With 21,093 international students enrolled during the 2019-2020 academic year, New York University is the largest host of foreign students among American institutions, according to the annual “Open Doors” report, published by the Institute of International Education.
A Chaotic Time
The ban played havoc with the lives of students from restricted countries, says Shafiqa Ahmadi, professor of education and co-director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Education, Identity & Social Justice. The university is the third-highest host of foreign students among American institutions. (See a related article, “Fewer Arab Students Head for the United States”).
“We had to advise many of our international students not to leave the country because we knew they might not be able to come back,” she said. Students who wanted to go home to visit family or attend a wedding or a funeral had to stay put.
We had to advise many of our international students not to leave the country because we knew they might not be able to come back.”Shafiqa Ahmadi
A professor of education and co-director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Education, Identity & Social Justice
In addition, the ban divided many families. Spouses and children were unable to join scholars, students, or graduates already in the United States.
Biden ended the ban in one of his first official acts, only hours after he was sworn in as U.S. president on January 20. In a statement, he called former President Donald Trump’s various orders that spelled out the ban “a moral blight that has dulled the power of our example the world over. And they have separated loved ones, inflicting pain that will ripple for years to come. They are just plain wrong.”
For many students the change offers them both academic and personal promise. Ahmed Hashem, a medical student at the University of Aden, in Yemen, once again has set his sights on completing his studies in the United States, where he also wants to be reunited with family members. Two of his brothers traveled to America in 2016, before Trump became president. “I have no hope here in Yemen,” he said, “and I want to emigrate to study and work in America. The American dream is still possible.”
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Ahmadi, of the University of Southern California, says a particularly positive provision of Biden’s executive order is one that calls on the U.S. State Department to report back to the president within 45 days on the number of visa applicants from the barred countries who were either denied a visa or are still waiting for an exemption, and a plan to reconsider their requests “expeditiously.”
A fast and fair clearing up of the backlog will help “telegraph the message to international students and scholars: ‘We need you; we want you,’” says Rachel Banks, NAFSA’s senior director for public policy and legislative strategy.
A fast and fair clearing up of the backlog will help “telegraph the message to international students and scholars: ‘We need you; we want you.’”Rachel Banks
NAFSA’s senior director for public policy and legislative strategy.
She says that the Trump administration’s policy of exclusion made it clear that “those students are not welcome, and that definitely had a chilling effect” on students considering study in America.
During the first three years of Trump’s presidency, the number of new international enrollments in the United States dropped 11 percent, the biggest decrease since the years right after the 2001 terror attacks.
Countries that compete with the United States for the lucrative business of recruiting international students, especially Canada and Australia, benefited during the Trump years by increasing their international enrollments, educators say.
Trump issued the first version of his travel ban as an executive order a week after he was inaugurated. The move barred immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The ban’s stated purpose was to keep out “radical Islamic terrorists.”
Dozens of lawsuits followed, many successful in blocking parts of the ban, and three further presidential proclamations. With widespread criticism that the ban targeted members of one religion, the Trump administration added North Korea and Venezuela to the list. In February 2020, it added six more African and Asian countries: Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sudan and Tanzania.
While educators applaud President Biden’s quick lifting of the travel ban, some of them warn that the anti-Muslim prejudice it helped promote will take longer to undo.
The ban “certainly had a chilling effect on the rights of [Muslim] students and faculty to speak out and created a hostile learning environment, especially with Islamophobes allowed to speak on campuses, particularly after the 2016 election,” says the University of Southern California’s Ahmadi.
She says over recent years, Muslims on university campuses sometimes encounter hate-speech and acts of aggression. “They are stereotyped as terrorists and oppressed women.”
State Department statistics will soon show if student visas for those from the once-affected countries begin to flow again: The reversal of prejudice, if it happens, will be harder to measure.