UI students future uncertain after travel ban


Brian Bauer

Protesters gather outside Willard Airport on Sunday to march against Trump’s recent executive order on immigration.

By Angelica LaVito, Staff Writer

Zahra Shamsi, chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate, has not been home in three years.

Home for her is Iran, and her student visa grants her one-time entry into the United States.

This means a trip back home could risk her ability to return to school. With two to three years left in her program, Shamsi was willing to reapply for a visa this summer so she could go home and see her family.

Those plans changed Friday when U.S.  President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning entry from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days.

“One of the best things here I’ve always liked is you can plan for your future, there’s some amount of certainty you can make decisions based on. But now, I feel like there are so many uncertainties now here, too,” Shamsi said. “Even if it doesn’t affect you, it makes you feel unconfident about your future.”

Shamsi is one of 143 students at the University from the seven countries included in Trump’s executive order. International students can study in the U.S. if they hold a visa, typically an F-1 visa. These students legally entered the country, but they would not be allowed to return if they left the U.S.

Protesters gathered at airports across the U.S. on Saturday as travelers from the affected countries were detained. A federal judge blocked portions of the executive order that night. The Department of Homeland Security responded Sunday, saying in a statement, “prohibited travel will remain prohibited, and the U.S. government retains its right to revoke visas at any time if required for national security or public safety.”

Lance Cooper, associate head of graduate programs for the department of physics, described a sense of anxiety among his students.

“I think one of the concerns of students is how long this is going to go,” he said. “They’re worried their visas will get revoked or if it goes further they know they can’t leave the country.”

Erfan Mohammadi, a chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate, and his fiancee visited his family in Iran over winter break. He returned using his Green Card, and his fiancee, who is pursuing a graduate degree at Akron University in Ohio, was awaiting her visa to be renewed.

Her application was frozen in wake of Trump’s executive order, according to Mohammadi. The two classes she was enrolled in will not be offered next semester, which could cost her two years of preparation and schooling.

“I feel like, more like cheated because it’s like you’re having this contract with some university or something like that. And now a third party, which is the U.S. government, is coming and basically banning you from entering the country,” Mohammadi said.

He and Shamsi described the University as welcoming to them, but they both described a change when they learned of Trump’s executive order.

Shamsi understands the rationale to keep terrorists out of the country. But, she doesn’t understand what she sees as a policy that “clusters” people together.

“If some attack happens or some shooting happens, everybody feels depressed and nobody likes it,” she said. “And suddenly it’s related to you, I mean you never had thought about it. You know? You’ve never thought there is a way they can relate it to you. It’s a very weird feeling.”

Within hours, Shamsi’s friends reached out to her with supportive messages. The next day, she felt even more support watching protests against the ban around the country.

Martin McFarlane, director of International Student and Scholar Services, emailed students from the seven countries included in the ban shortly after the executive order was signed. He advised students against traveling outside the U.S. for the next 30 days and offered his support.

“At the moment, you are probably feeling unwelcome in the country you have chosen to travel to, the country you have chosen to live, study or work in,” he wrote. “I want you to hear the following very clearly: You are wanted at the University of Illinois. You are needed here. And you are valued here. ISSS will continue to advocate for you at both a local and national level, and we encourage you to reach out to us if you feel we can help in any way.”

For Mohammadi, silence from some Americans has upset him more than the executive order itself. He said he does not feel comfortable here anymore.

“I came here with the promise of free education, with freedom of speech, and I came here with the promise that everyone is an immigrant,” he said. “I felt very welcome to come here in the beginning years, but right now, I don’t feel welcome at all.”

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