Nineteen Iranian students planning to study at UB didn’t make it to campus this semester.
They are stuck in legal limbo as they struggle to get student visas to study in the U.S., according to Katie Tudini, assistant vice provost and director for International Student Services.
Their visas got denied due to the U.S. government’s recent crackdown on immigration and the Trump administration’s executive order prohibiting citizens from five Muslim-majority countries,Venezuela and North Korea from entering the country.
With the second week of school wrapping up, those who couldn’t obtain a student visa are being forced to defer their classes until they can legally live in the United States, or study elsewhere.
Nicole Hallett, a law professor specializing in immigration issues, said the difficulties Iranian students face obtaining visas are the expected side effects of the travel ban.
“Nationwide, Iranian people coming in on student visas are the largest group of people affected,” Hallett said. “There are more foreign students from Iran than any other students on the list [of banned countries], so they’ve been particularly affected by this. The fact that so many weren’t able to start [this semester] is a sad truth in today’s political world.”
The repercussions of the ban are already apparent in the number of students allowed to study in the United States from the affected countries.
In 2015-16, more than 12,000 Iranians studied in the United States, with more than 78 percent of those students enrolled in graduate programs, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. In Trump v. Hawaii, court filings showed that during the first three months of 2018, only 258 student visas were distributed to students from Iran, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.
Of the 29 Iranian students who intended to study at UB this fall, only 10 secured visas and are currently on campus.
“I’m actually surprised that 10 students were able to obtain visas,” Hallett said.
Tudini said many people don’t think about the implications of the travel ban in Buffalo. But it impacts more and more students every semester, she added.
With the cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal adding more stress to the U.S.-Iranian relationship, educators and university administrators worry that many Iranian students are opting to go to other countries to study, resulting in major financial losses for American universities.
“These students are highly sought after,” Tudini said. “This group of Iranian students was recruited to come to UB. We worked with the embassies they were using to try and expedite things as quickly as possible, because in some cases, these students are acting as teaching assistants. We wanted to ensure that they’d still receive their funding to make sure that the students and UB didn’t lose out on their investment.”
For the Iranian students who made it to campus, arriving in Buffalo marked the end of a grueling process.
Faegheh Hajhosseini, a master’s philosophy student, had to defer her classes two years ago because she couldn’t obtain a student visa. Last year, she obtained a two-year multiple student visa –– meaning she can travel between the U.S. and Iran –– and began classes last fall.
After this year, her visa will change to a single visa, restricting her from returning home to Iran. She said obtaining a visa was hard enough with Trump’s original travel ban, but after the Supreme Court upheld the ban in June, it became even harder.
“I had to go to Dubai to get my student visa, because there’s no American Embassy in Iran,” Hajhosseini said. “I actually had to travel there twice; once to get my single visa and a second time to make it a multiple visa. Everyone told me that it’d be a waste of time to apply for my visa because of the ban.”
Despite the fact that friends and family tried convincing her to study anywhere but the United States, Hajhosseini believed it was the best place to earn her degree. While she’s happy to be writing her master’s thesis, she knows she’s sacrificing a lot.
“It’s great that I’m here right now, but really frustrating because once my visa changes to a single visa next year, I won’t be able to see my family,” Hajhosseini said. “They can’t come here and I can’t leave. I’ll be doing my Ph.D., so it’ll be a while before I can see them again.”
Hajhosseini said she’s thankful for her opportunity to come to America, even if it means her family won’t see her walk across the stage when she eventually graduates. She said leaving behind the oppression she endured in Iran to study in America was well worth the stress of obtaining a visa.
“Education was the biggest reason why I left Iran, but that wasn’t the only reason. We want to have a better quality of life, because in Iran it’s unfortunately very low,” Hajhosseini said. “I love Iran, and I’d go back in a heartbeat, but because of the nuclear arms deal cancelation, this is a very bad time to live in Iran. Iran has inflation, oppression, hate and anger. But in America, I feel like I can escape these things while I attend school. I think this is the main reason why we overlook all the difficulties of coming here and trying to apply.”
President Trump’s travel ban began on Jan. 27, 2017, when he signed an executive order immediately barring entry into the U.S. for the citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries – Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
Lawmakers across the country attempted to overturn the executive order, resulting in periods of time when the ban was not in effect. Trump revised the executive order two times, with its most recent iteration taking effect in December 2017.
Opposition to the travel ban worked its way to the Supreme Court in June. In a 5-4 ruling, the high court upheld President Trump’s ban and offered a limited endorsement of the president’s executive authority.
The ban, dubbed by opponents as a discriminatory “Muslim ban,” currently applies to people from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. It also placed less serious limits on people from North Korea and Venezuela.
According to the latest version of the executive order, President Trump installed the ban because the listed countries “remain deficient at this time with respect to their identity-management and information-sharing capabilities, protocols, and practices. In some cases, these countries also have a significant terrorist presence within their territory.”
Other Iranian students share Hajhosseini’s ambition to leave their difficulties behind them and start new in Buffalo.
Ali Hassani*, a first year Ph.D. student in the engineering department, said he wanted to study in America to set himself up for the best career possible.
“There are some good universities in Iran, but studying in America would be a dream come true,” Hassani, said. “You present your research to a committee, have to take challenging classes, get to be on an American campus. It’s just so different from Iran.”
When Hassani began applying to American universities, President Trump’s executive order went into effect, turning his choice to study abroad into a fight for education.
“It was devastating. A bad reputation caused by a few bad people ruined the relationship between Iran and the U.S.,” Hassani said. “Waiting for that visa to come in the mail killed my happiness to come to America. I was so happy to get into UB, but waiting with the uncertainty of whether or not I’d have to defer my first semester of classes made me not happy. When my visa finally got approved I was mad. Not at the U.S., but because it took so long.”
Tudini said Iranian students experience road bumps every year, but they’ve been getting increasingly worse as a result of the executive order. Students who have already studied at the university are less likely to experience problems she said, but new potential students from countries affected by the ban should expect a difficult road before arriving on campus.
“Generally we’re more concerned with new students because the best indicator of your visa eligibility is if you’ve already received one. Continuing students normally have fewer problems,” Tudini said. “But, Ph.D. students are tricky. We have one student who completed her first year and did not receive a new visa, so it’s likely that the research she did here won’t be that easy to carry over into a different university since it’s so specific to the tools and resources available on our campus. We’re still figuring out a plan for her.”
The 10 Iranian students who received visas arrived on campus throughout the last two weeks after completing the visa application all summer. Those who arrived on campus after international orientation –– where international students register for classes and complete mandatory check-in procedures –– had to submit late arrival request forms, get them approved and find classes with open seats left.
“I got my visa on the last possible day before having to defer my classes,” Hassani said. “It arrived in the mail and I packed everything and left for Buffalo immediately. I got here on Saturday, started school on Monday, and had to catch up on all the things I missed at international orientation. It was a stressful first few days.”
Additionally, much of the housing near UB’s campuses had been taken. Many apartments require deposits as early as the spring semester. Some students that received visas could not travel to the U.S. for school because they didn’t have a place to stay.
Hallet said there is a waiver process allowing students to navigate past the travel ban, but it’s still tricky to gain entry to the U.S.
Hallett said the immigration system is opaque and extremely difficult for foreigners to navigate. Although the travel ban has put the issue of immigration under a magnifying glass, she said the immigration system has been less favorable to citizens of Muslim-majority nations since 9/11.
Hallett said it’s impossible to determine why one student would receive a single visa as opposed to a multiple visa.
“There’s a lot of lawsuits in place arguing that the Trump administration is just claiming there’s a waiver process because so few people are getting waivers,” Hallett said.
Hassani also has a two-year multiple visa. He said he can travel back to Iran twice without trouble, but after that he’ll have to stay in America. Hallett recommends students affected by the travel ban to double check their visa status before leaving the country.
“My general advice to people who are caught up in one of these policies: if you’re here and you’re studying and want to make sure you can finish your degree, always consult someone before you leave the country,” Hallett said. “For those students who got multiple entry visas: if you’re planning on going home at the end of the year, speak with an attorney or International Student and Scholar Services to make sure you’ll be able to come back to campus safely.”
*The name of this individual has been changed because of his concerns about violating Iranian censorship laws.
Max Kalnitz is the senior news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Max_Kalnitz