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UB wary of future as travel ban leaves international students chilled

Samriddha Basu has wanted to study in the United States for as long as she can remember. The University at Buffalo junior from Calcutta, India, also had hoped to stay and find work in this country after graduating.

Now, she’s not so sure.

“I want to stay here, but at the rate it is going, maybe going back home is the best option,” said Basu, an international trade major.

President Trump’s order last week banning travel into the United States for 90 days was limited to seven Muslim majority nations, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan. Those countries send about 17,300 students to American colleges and universities, a tiny fraction of the more than 1 million international students who study in the United States.

Nonetheless, the ban sent shock waves across American higher education. College and university administrators fretted that international students from the seven countries and beyond now will be reluctant to enroll in an American institution. The order was implemented as college and universities launched into the height of their admissions seasons, potentially steering international students who had designs on an American degree toward other countries.

“This will do and I think has done damage to American higher education,” said Stephen C. Dunnett, vice provost for international education at UB. “You can imagine if you are a parent and you have a 17- or 18-year-old child that you are about to send to Buffalo this fall, and you might think twice about whether you’d like your child to come here.”

A federal judge in the state of Washington has issued a temporary restraining order halting the president’s executive order banning the citizens of those seven countries from entering the United States, but the Trump administration says it soon will be fighting the judge’s restraining order.

UB President Satish K. Tripathi, a native of India, joined nearly 50 university presidents who signed a letter last week urging the president to rescind the order.

“If left in place, the order threatens both American higher education and the defining principles of our country,” the letter states. “The order specifically prevents talented, law-abiding students and scholars from the affected regions from reaching our campuses.

Nearly half of the students studying in the United States are from China and India. UB has about 5,200 international students, not including an additional 1,500 to 2,000 students on optional practical training, a post-graduation employment period.

 

At UB, Trump’s order had the immediate potential to keep 122 students, most of them from Iran, away from their studies this semester, although the university was aware of just one graduate student, an Iranian, who was unable to get a visa to return to campus because of the ban.

An Iranian graduate student at UB who spoke to The News on the condition that he not be identified said the president’s order signaled an alarming new direction for the country. The student, a slender, soft-spoken chemical engineer with thick dark hair and stylish glasses, was not traveling when the order was implemented and did not directly experience border problems.

But he now wonders whether he made the right decision five years ago when he chose to pursue graduate studies in the United States, rather than in Canada.

UB has been a good place for him, he said. He has developed the kind of research skills that are in high demand among companies seeking highly educated, innovative employees.

But in the wake of the immigration ban, the student isn’t sure whether he will ever be completely welcomed in the United States.

“Any administration can treat us however they want, and it doesn’t feel good,” he said.

Campus protests

The executive order has become a flashpoint on many campuses, including at UB, where about 200 students protested for more than an hour Friday on the North Campus in Amherst, chanting “No Ban! No Wall!” and “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA.”

Basu, the student from India, carried a sign and joined in the chants. She said she isn’t sure what to expect from one minute to the next with Trump.

“At this moment, he says he likes India, but you can’t really trust him,” she said. “If he says he likes India now, I don’t know what he’s going to say in two days time.”

UB students rally at the University at Buffalo's North Campus in Amherst on Feb. 3. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

About 200 students at the University at Buffalo protested President Trump's immigration travel ban and plans to build a wall on the Mexico border.

Students from countries on the travel ban list and from several Muslim majority countries not on the list were asking university officials for help in trying to understand whether they too could be affected.

“It’s a very confusing order, and it’s made a lot of people really nervous and anxious,” said Nicole Hallett, an assistant clinical professor in the UB School of Law. Hallet, who is director of the school’s Community Justice Clinic, was planning workshops and meeting individually with students who may need legal assistance.

“My sense from students is that they’re thinking, ‘If Trump can do this, what can’t he do?’ ”

Trump said his administration would issue visas again to all countries after he has “reviewed and implemented the most secure policies over the next 90 days. He also said his first priority was to protect the nation from terror attacks.

Some UB students supported the order.

“One bad person, that’s too much of a risk,” said Reed Tighe, a senior political science major from Blauvielt, Rockland County. “Our people should be safe, especially from people coming into our country. Donald Trump ran his whole campaign on America First, and he’s been keeping his promises.”

Tighe said the country needs to take care of its own problems before addressing the needs of other nations.

“I think it’s good that we have international students here, but our priority should be educating our students first,” he said.

About 30 students counter-demonstrated on Friday with signs in support of Trump. At one point, UB police had to separate a protester and counter-demonstrator who were engaged in a heated discussion inside the Student Union.

Not taking any risks

In a quieter area of the campus, Alva Lazuardy was still sorting through his reaction to the executive order. The security of the United States is important, but Trump made a point in his campaign of calling for a ban on Muslims into the country, said Lazuardy, a senior from Jakarta, Indonesia.

“If he had just said, ‘I’m going to ban some countries that could tread on our security,' ” said Lazuardy, who is Muslim. “Even though it’s temporary, it sends a strong Islamophobic message.”

Lazuardy intends to return to Indonesia when he finishes his studies, but he said he has enjoyed his time in the United States and worries that the executive order will discourage future students from coming here.

“Muslims maybe think, ‘I’ve been dreaming of going to America and now I cannot,' ” he said. “I don’t know why Mr. Trump chose those seven countries in specific. But I believe there’s a better way to secure America from terrorism, other than to put on a ban.”

Some international students said that although they were not directly affected by the travel ban, they were taking steps to protect themselves.

Ying Shern Joshua Ong, a junior economics major from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, plans to “keep myself under the radar.”

Ong has in the past visited siblings studying in the United Kingdom, but he probably won’t this semester.

“I’m not going to take the risk, sadly,” he said.

Ong wants to stay in the United States for a master’s degree, and he dreams of someday working for the World Bank or International Monetary Fund.

Enrollment impact

If UB loses international students, it could have a significant impact on the university’s bottom line.

While they are represent roughly 17 percent of the entire student body at UB, international students bring in about a third of the university’s tuition revenue, because they pay a full non-resident rate, plus some additional fees, and receive no financial aid.

UB’s plans to increase enrollment by 2,000 students over the next few years also may have to be revised, because some of the growth was predicated upon international students.

Some currently enrolled international students may choose to leave and return home to study or go to another country, such as Canada or Australia, with less restrictive visa policies.

“I think retention will be an issue,” said Dunnett, the university’s vice provost.

But UB has no plans to change how it admits international students, including those from countries included in the travel ban.

“To not admit them, I think, would be cruel, because they want to come. For us to close the door ourselves would be worse than the action that took place,” Dunnett said. “I can’t guarantee we will be able to get a visa, but we will admit.”

Dunnett said international students have never been an issue when it comes to terrorism on American soil.

“Of course we are concerned about national security. That’s why we vet very carefully,” he said. “If somebody wanted to do damage to our country or to us, the last visa they would apply for would be a student visa. That process takes more than a year, sometimes a year and a half.”

The order also threatened to short-circuit America’s primacy in higher education and research. A third of all doctoral candidates in U.S. colleges and universities are from abroad, and half of doctoral candidates in science, technology, engineering and math studying in the United States come from other countries.

“We need them very badly. We especially need them in STEM fields,” said Dunnett.

Rather than displacing American workers, international students ultimately end up helping to fuel the economy by filling high-tech jobs that companies otherwise would send overseas, he added.

The Iranian graduate student, who is just months away from earning a doctoral degree in chemical engineering, may soon be one of them. Or he might start his own company and hire employees to help him.

“I wanted to come to the United States because I always had this entrepreneurship idea and everybody said, if you are talented, this is the place you can flourish,” he said.

He also could end up in Canada or back in Iran.

“It really depends on what happens after these 90 days,” he said.

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