Iranian students fear immigration hardships may amplify during political tension

Students worry weeks of military escalation will make travel even more difficult

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Graduate student Gheysar Jebelli* tries to avoid news stories about his home country, Iran. They upset him and distract him from his academic studies.   

But when his friend texted him on Jan. 8 that Iran had fired missiles at an Iraqi airbase housing U.S. troops in retaliation for the U.S.’ assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, Jebelli became distressed. He kept his eyes glued to the headlines. 

Jebelli dreaded the worst: war. 

He also feared for his safety and worried what would happen to him and the 102 other Iranian students at UB. 

“I was terrified, shaking and worrying about my family and Iranian people in the region, as well as myself here [in the U.S.],” Jebelli said. “I was thinking about the chances of someone coming to my home/ office, taking me or asking me questions, investigating my belongings or files. I was reading about my rights, even though I knew it might not be respected.”

He wanted to know how to protect himself if he was detained or searched.  

He feared U.S. authorities might mimic their displacement and detention of people of Japanese descent during World War II.

He had reason to worry. In January, more than 100 Iranian Americans were “delayed” at the Canadian-American border in Washington. Some were questioned about their opinions on the military escalation, which reached a high point in early January after Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Soleimani, the former commander of Iran’s Quds Force. The assasination was the peak of a military escalation that began when an Iranian-backed militia fired rockets at an Iraqi military base and killed an American contractor.  

Coming to the U.S. has never been easy for Iranian students and it’s become more difficult since June 2018, when President Trump initiated restrictions as part of Presidential Proclamation 9645, commonly referred to as the “travel ban.”  

January’s military escalation between the U.S. and Iran may make travel even more difficult. 

Iranian students say they have a particularly difficult and long time attaining the visas they need to study in the U.S., which prevents some from completing their academic programs. Many can’t see their family members until their academic program is over because travel between the two countries is too difficult. 

 While most UB international students wait between one and 30 days for their student visas, Iranian students usually wait between 60 days to one year to get visas, according to Kathryn Tudini, assistant vice provost and director for International Student Services. The “travel ban” subjects Iranian students to “enhanced screening and vetting requirements” that are often time consuming. Iranians also need to travel to another country in order to apply for a visa since there is no U.S. embassy in Iran. 

Tudini says if students wait longer than 60 days for their visas, ISS begins to “advocate” for the student by collecting information about them –– such as their research interests, faculty relationships and funding sources –– and sending it to the consulate where the student’s visa is being processed. 

“We work with the academic departments to gather information regarding a student’s research interests, faculty relationships, and funding sources to develop a holistic petition,” Tudini said.

ISS encourages Iranian UB students to remain in the U.S. during their program to avoid immigration delays that may prevent them from finishing their education. This happened in fall 2018, when 19 accepted UB students couldn’t get visas in time to start classes. That left only 10 of 29 accepted Iranian students able to attend UB. Over the past three years, two Iranian students were unable to finish their programs at UB after traveling out of the country because they were either “denied at the port” or were denied a new visa, according to Tudini. At least 16 Iranian students at U.S. universities were denied entry to the U.S. at the border after receiving their visas since August, according to The New York Times. 

“Every decision to leave the U.S. comes with a risk that they may be denied re-entry in the future,” Tudini said.

The Spectrum interviewed three Iranian students, all of whom feared political retaliation against themselves or their families if they used their names in print. They said the travel restrictions leave prospective Iranian students uncertain if they can come to UB to study and prevent current Iranian students from returning home or being visited by family.

“We feel imprisoned,” Jebelli said.

Jebelli has not seen his family for four years, even when one of them passed away, because he was too afraid that if he left the U.S. he wouldn’t be allowed back to finish his studies. 

“The only effect that I got to see from the ban was tearing families apart, making students even more stressed and depressed,” he said. 

Ashkan Darbandi,* a graduate student, says he won’t be able to see his parents until he leaves UB and describes the experience as “living in limbo.” 

“I have only to wait until I graduate, or anything special happens so I can meet my parents,” Darbandi said. “I just hope they are safe until that day. It is like living in limbo. You are afraid that something happens, but what can I do besides having hopes and fears?”

When the “travel ban” was first ordered in 2017, ISS reached out to Iranian students with “words of support and encouragement” and offered students “an opportunity” to meet with ISS’s former director. 

Ramin Asadi,* a graduate student, wishes groups dedicated to helping international students, like ISS, did more to help Iranian students share their concerns. 

“We received some sympathy emails from ISS but in my opinion that’s not enough,” Asadi said. “They could do much better after the travel ban. Iranian students expect ISS, or any organization involved with international students, to support us. This is the most basic human right that we want to see our families and we have not seen any strong effort to spread our voices.”

January’s military escalation may cause immigration authorities to be particularly cautious during their “screening” and “vetting” procedures, which may increase the time Iranian students need to wait for their visas.

“I would suppose everyone would be on high alert and the highest level of security screening,” Jim Campbell, a political science professor, said.

Multiple Iranian students said the visa-wait makes it hard for prospective Iranian students to plan their futures and that they feared UB would revoke their admission because they took too long to get their visas. Some prospective students at American universities worry they won’t get their visas before the start of their academic program.

“Some of us have been waiting for more than seven months, and there is no indication of how many more months this process would last,” a group of 212 Iranian students and academic researchers from multiple universities currently waiting for visas to the U.S. wrote in a petition created to “speed up the process” so that they can get their visas before enrollment deadlines.

“We are wondering that we may not be able to arrive on time for our check-in processes in our universities, or even worse, may lose our admissions and scholarships,” the petition reads. “The uncertainty has led to tremendous [suffering] and distress in our personal and professional lives and also has made planning for the future almost impossible.” 

Iranian students face further hardships after entering the U.S. because many must stay inside of the country through the duration of their academic programs, which often last multiple years. They typically receive “single-entry” visas, meaning their visas expire after they leave the country, and need to apply for a new visa if they decide to leave, which may mean another long wait. Many are unable to return home to visit their families without risking their educations.

“After the travel ban, we have been stuck here like a prisoner with no visitor,” Asadi said. 

Trump said he will expand the “travel ban” soon to implement further visa restrictions, with seven additional countries on the potential list. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives will vote on a bill in the coming weeks that would limit the “travel ban” by requiring the U.S. government to provide evidence of threats to national security or public safety before they can restrict travel. 

*Students’ names have been changed because they fear retaliation.

 Julian Roberts-Grmela is a senior news and features editor and can be reached at julian.grmela@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @GrmelaJulian.

JULIAN ROBERTS-GRMELA


Julian Roberts-Grmela is the senior news editor at The Spectrum