BANNED: Trump’s Executive Order Hits Home
Ali Abdi GRD ‘18 is stuck. The Iranian anthropology PhD candidate, who has been a permanent resident in the United States for over five years, left for Kabul on Jan. 22 — two days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump and one day after participating in the Women’s March on Washington — to begin six months of fieldwork. His journey is currently paused in Dubai, where he is waiting to hear if he will receive the visa needed to enter Afghanistan. If not, he will be stranded; a vocal human rights activist, Abdi has been barred from returning to his native Iran. And although he has been granted asylum by the U.S., going back is no longer an option for the foreseeable future.
On Jan. 27, President Trump issued an executive order restricting immigration to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran. Under the order, citizens of these countries are banned from entering the U.S. for 90 days; admission of refugees is stalled for at least 120 days; and those from Syria are barred indefinitely. Although President Trump has denied that the order is a “Muslim ban,” claiming instead that it targets “Islamic” terrorists, many argue that its preferential treatment of Christian refugees is discriminatory. In the days following the signing of the order, protest and demonstrations, both at Yale and in cities across the country, have erupted.
There has also been confusion about the implementation of the order, with the White House and Department of Homeland Security debating whether or not it applies to permanent residents. Consequently, members of the Yale community affected by this travel ban are both upset and confused about what the future may hold. They are torn; many say the U.S. feels like home, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the option to leave and come back.
Abdi recalled that after being arrested in Iran for participating in a political protest, security forces gave him the choice of either staying in the country and cooperating, or leaving. If he were to leave, they said, their lives would be easier.
“When Trump signed the executive order, he said ‘we do not want them here,’” Abdi said. “And the moment I read that, it reminded me of what I had heard seven or eight years ago by Iranian security who were telling me the same thing. To me, home is a place where I feel I am welcome, I feel safe, I feel I am not constantly threatened by people in power. And neither of these contexts look like that to me now.”
Abdi is not alone; he is just one of many Yale students affected by the travel ban. According to Ann Kuhlman, director of Yale’s Office of International Students & Scholars, there are approximately 15 students from the designated countries currently in the U.S. on nonimmigrant visas and 18 visiting researchers. Several undergraduates contacted by the News declined to share their stories, citing privacy and legal concerns.
Abrar Omeish ’17, president of the Muslim Students Association, said she knows of four students in the Yale Muslim community who are nationals of the countries in question and many more who are indirectly affected either because they are dual citizens or because they have family and friends from those nations. As a Libyan-American, Omeish added that her own family is affected; for example, her grandparents will not be able to attend her graduation this spring.
“People are in different places with this,” Omeish said. “Some are sad, some are angry, some are energized to act and work. For me, I view this as part of God’s plan. It’s another test we have to face, and we’re going to move forward in the best way we can.”
Omeish added that she finds it ironic that her faith, the very thing the executive order tries to ban, is one of the most positive forces in the Muslim community driving people to stand up for justice.
Even students not directly impacted by the order have expressed their outrage and sadness. Although the number of Yale students whose lives are touched by the ban is relatively small, the number of students who know or know of such people is not.
Garima Singh ’20, an international student from India, said although she is not Muslim, she knows what it feels like to immigrate to the U.S. and not feel accepted.
“[The idea] that there’s a ‘proper American’ is literally the most un-American thing possible,” Singh said. “This country is made up of people who were fleeing religious persecution, and now we’re religiously persecuting people and not allowing refugees into the country … People seem unable to grasp the idea that nobody is native to this country other than Native Americans, who we’ve also treated terribly.”
Arvin Kakekhani GRD ’16, an Iranian post-doctoral candidate at Stanford University, said he has not visited his home country since he arrived in the U.S. more than six years ago and has only seen his parents once in this period. He added that it is risky for him to return to Iran as a person studying physics and engineering, or will at least make obtaining a visa more difficult.
The uncertainties and contradictions surrounding the executive order make this time especially painful, Kakekhani said. He added that because of his qualifications and education, he is hopeful that he will be able to build a life in another country, if necessary, but worries about the stress he is causing his parents in Iran.
“I had comfort and peace of mind, of course I had made lots of sacrifices … but I was happy with the minimum,” Kakekhani said. “But now they’re taking away the minimum, which is the power to predict a little bit in the future. Now I don’t have the luxury to know what will happen to me tomorrow.”
Immigrants are essential to intellectual progress, said Daniel Spielman ’92, a professor of computer science and director of undergraduate studies for applied mathematics. He said the practice of excluding immigrants, particularly those in certain academic fields, also poses the risk of them moving to and working for countries in conflict with the U.S.
Spielman said he worries about people like his colleague and collaborator, professor of electrical engineering and computer science Amin Karbasi. Karbasi’s wife and daughter traveled to visit family Iran a few weeks ago and do not know if or when they can return.
Situations like Karbasi’s are “distressing” both personally and academically, according to Spielman. He added that Karbasi could easily work anywhere in the world, and if the U.S. does not make him feel welcome, he will move.
“Many of the most talented scientists and engineers move to the U.S. to study, discover, invent and build,” Spielman said. “If they stop coming here, the engine of progress in the United States will lose steam. Iran produces some of the best scientists and engineers in the world. I have personally trained and worked with many of them — we are only hurting ourselves if we make them unwelcome.”
These worries were echoed by professor and department chair of computer science Joan Feigenbaum, who called the executive order “despicable.” She added that there has only been one female recipient of the Fields Medal — the highest individual honor in mathematics — and the woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, is Iranian.
While the long-term future is uncertain for individuals trying to make sense of the ban’s stipulations, it is clear that those with travel plans for this semester or even this summer will have to consider other options.
Razieh Armin GRD ’18, who moved to the U.S. two years ago from Tehran, said both she and her husband are weighing their next steps. Armin was planning to intern abroad this summer, hopefully at a United Nations office in Beirut, but can’t foresee being able to leave the country. She had also hoped to visit her sister and father back home. Armin added that her husband, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in Florida, will likely have to change his thesis topic because his research currently requires him to do fieldwork in Iran.
Still, Armin said her family’s situation is not as bad as that of her other Iranian friends, some of whom are students in the U.S. but were on vacation when the executive order was signed and therefore cannot return.
The silver lining, as students pointed out, is knowing they are not alone in their opposition to Trump’s actions. Members of the Yale community have been vocal in their objections and genuine in their allyship.
“Feeling that you are not welcome in a place where you are living is one of the worst things that can happen to a person,” Armin said. “Fortunately, my friends and the people who I am surrounded with have been very, very supportive and right now I don’t feel that I’m alone. I’m really thankful for that.”
Members of the Yale community have criticized both the moral shortcomings and political inexperience they see reflected in Trump’s executive order.
One major objection is that “extreme vetting” is unnecessary, seeing as international students already undergo a thorough vetting process prior to arriving in the U.S. For example, Armin and Kakekhani both pointed out that the ban’s call for more background checks is excessive, especially considering the extensive visa process they went through.
Armin acknowledged that as an international, she understands why the U.S. is concerned about security. However, she said Iranian visa applications go through very “intense and difficult” background checks, a process which is taking increasingly more time. It took her more than two months to get her visa. For Kakekhani, the process was even more involved.
There is no U.S. embassy or consulate in Iran because of the tense relations between the two countries, Kakekhani said, so he had to go to the U.S. consulate in Dubai to complete the visa process prior to arriving at Yale. He added the visa was not issued for 70 days, less than two weeks before his flight. His memories of his last days in Iran consist mostly of anxiously anticipating his visa and stringing together backup plans if it did not arrive in time for the semester. Kakekhani added that one of the reasons he has not been back to Iran in six years was because he was wary of going through the process again and having to postpone his education.
Other critics of the ban have pointed out that if its goal is to target countries that pose a significant terror risk to the U.S., Trump has made a miscalculation. The order does not apply to the countries that were home to the individuals who carried out the Sept. 11 terror attacks: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Critics have suggested that these countries were made exempt because of President Trump’s business interests there.
Psychology professor Paul Bloom, who is from Canada, commented that experts on the left and right agree the ban will be harmful for the U.S. He added that it is “cruel, causing needless suffering.”
While the policy continues to antagonize many people, legal challenges to the ban are building. The counterargument is twofold: the blanket ban on individuals from designated countries is said to violate the fifth amendment right to due process, and the preferential treatment of Christian individuals violates the first amendment’s guarantee of freedom to religion.
Several judges have also impeded the execution of the ban: on Jan. 28 a New York judge ordered an immediate halt to deportations of travelers from the targeted countries who had just landed at U.S. airports, a case aided in part by the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at the Yale Law School. And on Wednesday, a judge in California did the same.
There has also been much confusion throughout the federal government about how to implement the ban itself. Arash Ghiassi LAW ’18, an Iranian-Canadian citizen, said the “badly written” order is confusing because it does not specify who it applies to, particularly when it comes those with dual citizenship like himself.
“That limbo situation is in itself a bad thing, and something we should draw attention to,” Ghiassi said. “The fact [is] you don’t know where you belong, you don’t know what your rights are … [it is] the state of not being able to plan for the future and not knowing what is going to happen for a long time. The anxiety that comes with it is very significant and nobody deserves to be in that situation.”
The Yale administration has responded to the executive order in various ways, but many students say the leadership’s initial response was lacking. Beyond this, the circumstances of the ban itself make it difficult for the University to provide tangible resources beyond statements of support.
According to University President Peter Salovey, the executive order was signed at 4:42 p.m. on Jan. 27, and the first email from the OISS to students and researchers from the seven affected countries was sent out just 24 minutes later. A second email was sent to this group at 7:37 p.m. the following day, and the OISS website is updated daily, he added.
Still, Salovey’s own campuswide email was met with mixed reactions: Students said his Jan. 28 message was vague, and an online faculty petition urging him to take a stronger stand against the order garnered nearly 250 signatures in several days. On Jan. 29, Salovey sent a follow-up email with more concrete information about the order and available campus resources, concluding that “we at Yale join our voices with all those who are calling for swift reversal of these measures that undermine our university’s — and our nation’s — core values.”
Zeshan Gondal ’19, vice president of the MSA, said he was disappointed by Salovey’s first message but heartened to see the subsequent denouncement of the executive order and display of support for the Muslim community. He added that he understands the importance of patience, acknowledging that a lot must go on behind the scenes of each email.
MSA president Omeish said that the administration has been supportive, and the group has already met with the Chaplain’s Office and the director of the OISS. She said the administration has emphasized that they are on the same side and hope to work in collaboration to support community members affected by the ban.
“In meeting with administrators, we were encouraged to encourage our membership to be patient, although this is a time when people have high levels of emotions and are likely to demand quick action,” Omeish said. “Perhaps the wisest, most helpful action is deliberate and thought out, which would require time — and that is reflected in Salovey’s letter, an attempt to sit down and think it through with different parties.”
Still, not everyone was pleased with this response. Omeish said various students in the Muslim community have expressed feeling pressure from the administration to inform them of any actions they are working on. So far, the group has organized a meeting on Monday night for people to share their thoughts in a safe space and held a panel-style talk about “navigating the Muslim ban” on Tuesday.
Yale has also drawn criticism from those who would like to see more immediate displays of support for affected members of the community, citing actions taken by other American universities. For instance, Mark Schlissel, the president of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, recently announced the school would not share sensitive information, like students’ immigration status, unless required by law — taking a definitive public stance against Trump’s order.
Kakekhani, who is currently at Stanford but whose visa is still sponsored by Yale, said he has received similar emails from both universities saying they are thinking about students affected and will keep them updated, but he does not expect much from either because they “don’t have the power to help” him significantly.
He added that Yale could use its lawyers to contact United States Citizenship and Immigration Services directly to seek out credible information about what might happen to people from the designated countries who are already in the U.S., or contact organizations that are responsible for extending and issuing visas.
The University could also show its support for students affected by the ban through a statement, Kakekhani said. He suggested that Yale publish an official complaint vouching for these students, as they have already been vetted and in the country for years and are trustworthy.
“If Yale could do some official letter or complaint about this, I think it would be a really good action,” Kakekhani said. “Other universities can do this also — there would be some momentum to at least keep the visas, at least give the students that have already spent years here the chance to stay here and continue their education and research.”
The OISS, in addition to communicating with students and offering regular advising, held two open meetings this week for students to ask questions. Kuhlman of the OISS explained that the office is available to any student or scholar with questions about how the executive order might affect them, and will work alongside the Office of General Counsel to help students with an urgent need obtain consultations with an immigration attorney.
Kuhlman added that the resources offered by the OISS and Yale are very similar to those of other institutions. She said U.S. institutions of higher education and their international offices are committed to supporting their communities and are working to seek clarification about the implications of the executive order to address both short and long term needs. However, she said the lack of clear information impedes these efforts.
“It is challenging because you want to be timely in your release of information, but you also want to be accurate, to make sure what you are sharing is confirmed fact and not speculation,” Kuhlman said. “That is why we have been hesitant to comment on the draft executive orders, as they are very likely to change when and if they are finalized.”
As many are denouncing this era as full of bigotry, others are noticing a renewed wave of solidarity and activism. Racism is not unique, but what is unique about this moment is the response to it, Omeish said. She praised the campuswide and national public “refusal to tolerate” the executive order. People who have never thought of activism are out in the streets, something she described as “beautiful.”
“Something growing up I was bullied for is now becoming a mainstream defended identity,” she said.
Omeish added that she urges allies to educate themselves about the values of Islam to counter the “racialized” way the religion has been portrayed for the majority of the lifetimes of current college students. She also commented on the importance of coalition-building with different groups and supporting activism on social media and through word of mouth.
So far, solidarity is evident. On Jan. 29, over 1,000 members of the Yale and New Haven communities gathered on Cross Campus for an hourlong vigil denouncing the executive order. The word “solidarity” itself was projected onto Sterling Memorial Library as several students and community members spoke to a sea of candle-holding, sign-waving participants, denouncing the order and calling for resistance. Immediately afterwards, Battell Chapel was filled to capacity for a pre-planned concert benefitting the local Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, which ultimately raised $14,000.
Similar events are taking place beyond New Haven. Armin praised the ongoing demonstrations across the country, calling them “impressive and important.” She cited the release of detained green card holders at airports as a victory, adding she expects more progress will be made as people continue to protest.
The future is uncertain and unpredictable, Abdi said from Dubai, but he remains hopeful. He added he is confident that “things will not remain as they are,” citing demonstrations happening across U.S. airports, government officials denouncing the ban, lawyers challenging the order and messages of support pouring into his inbox as reasons to be optimistic.
“I, as a human being, always believe in people’s’ power, and even though it sometimes sounds cheesy, it is my firm and deep belief that forces of good will eventually prevail over forces of evil,” Abdi said. “The situation will change, I have no doubt about it.”
Zainab Hamid and David Yaffe-Bellany contributed reporting.
Contact Rachel treisman at