Published on March 5, 2019

Two years in, Trump’s immigration policies continue to disrupt the lives of internationals at Yale.

In January 2017, Mohamed Eltoum ’19 said goodbye to his family, placed his bags in the back of his uncle’s car and headed to the airport to return to Yale for his sophomore spring semester. As he rode, Eltoum thought about the break. It had been uneventful. He’d played soccer with friends, hung out with neighbors in the garden in his front yard and walked the dusty alleys of his hometown, Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. But troubling news from the U.S. had hit the front pages of all the Arab newspapers in the region: The newly elected U.S. president was considering an executive order to ban citizens of majority-Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S. The news had upset Eltoum and his friends studying at American universities, but at the time, no order had been issued. In the car, he thought about his parents. It had been easy to say goodbye; his last trip home had been in September. They’d barely had time to miss him.

Eltoum arrived in New Haven on Jan. 15, two days before classes began. Had he waited 10 more days, he may never have arrived. Ten days into the semester, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning all citizens from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Sudan — from entering the United States for at least 90 days. The order stated that “immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from [these] countries would be detrimental to [U.S.] interests.”

Almost immediately, Trump’s travel ban faced challenges, in court and on campus. University president Peter Salovey released an email strongly condemning the ban, and Yale joined the Association of American Universities to urge the Trump administration to end the ban. More than a thousand Yalies gathered on Cross Campus to hold a vigil for those affected. “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here,” students chanted in unison. Court cases quickly enjoined the ban, but in June, the Supreme Court allowed a second iteration to take partial effect. A later, fuller version of the ban was upheld — this time in full — in June of 2018.

Over the last two years, a small group of Yale students and scholars from banned countries have suffered the consequences and uncertainty of Trump’s travel ban. If students from these countries leave the U.S., they may be unable to return.

The day Trump ordered the ban, Eltoum’s parents called in a panic. How would Trump’s order affect him? Could he keep his student visa? Eltoum did not know. He made an appointment with Yale’s Office of International Students & Scholars and kept going to class. He wouldn’t see his parents again for almost two years.

As of fall 2018, 17 international students from countries that are currently on the travel ban attend Yale University. A comparable number of affected students — 19 — were enrolled in fall 2017.

After the ban was announced, OISS launched into action. Ann Kuhlman, its executive director, and her colleagues reached out to the students affected by the ban, advising them not to leave the U.S. without first consulting OISS or an immigration attorney. They opened their offices for two consecutive afternoons to members of the Yale community for consultations. Ozan Say, an OISS advisor originally from Turkey, met multiple times with Eltoum to explain what was going on.

Kuhlman explained that the role of OISS at the time involved “staying on top of what [was] going on,” providing immigration counsel and connecting international students to legal services.

There is a strong consensus among immigration advisors and attorneys nationwide that students from the affected countries should not leave the U.S. while the travel ban is in effect, according to Kuhlman.

“It was, and still is, very hard — as anyone can imagine — to be unsure of one’s future, suddenly,” said Elizabeth Bradley, who served as head of Branford College until early 2017. “Students came to office hours, and friends of the affected students also came to talk and think through how they could support their peers.”

But there are limits to what the University can do in the face of an order issued from the highest office in the U.S. government. When asked what more the University could have done at the time, Bradley, who now serves as president of Vassar College, expressed that the University administration did everything within its capacity at the time.

Attempts by the University to lobby the government or judiciary to overturn the travel ban have been unsuccessful. Along with 30 other universities and colleges, Yale filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court challenging the third version of the travel ban, which “threatens their ability to attract scholars from around the world.” The decision was not what Yale had hoped. The Court upheld the ban.

In the weeks following Trump’s order, it became clear to Eltoum and others in his situation that they would not be returning home for a while.

“That whole semester I was thinking, if I had just stayed an extra day or two at home, then it could have been much, much worse, and I would have had to take the semester off,” Eltoum said.

Some international students were not so lucky. According to Eltoum, one of his friends from Sudan, who studies in Michigan and declined to be interviewed, was on a plane to the States when the travel ban was announced. At U.S. customs, he was told he could not enter and had to return home immediately. It did not matter that he had a valid student visa.

As Eltoum realized he would be unable to return home until the travel ban ended, the difficult reality of the year ahead dawned on him.

“The second semester of my sophomore year, I felt the worst,” Eltoum said.  “It was just very hard to get through. I felt frustration at the entire system that made the whole semester unbearable.”

Eltoum realized he wanted to become a doctor in high school when he worked at local orphanages and hospitals. While working as an assistant at a local hospital, he shadowed a senior doctor in heart and lung surgery and witnessed the profound impact he had on his patients’ lives. At the time, he didn’t think of attending an American university. It wasn’t until he was one of two students to earn the top score on Sudan’s national exams, giving  him a spot in the country’s only International Baccalaureate program, that he was encouraged to apply to American universities.

Even prior to the Trump administration, immigration processes for students from countries without favorable immigration agreements with the U.S. have been cumbersome and inconvenient.

U.S. student visas for Sudanese students expire every six months. If they leave the country on expired visas and wish to reenter, they first need to renew them at a U.S. embassy, usually in their home country. This has meant that every time Eltoum leaves the U.S, he also has to travel home to renew his student visa. But the visa renewal process takes at least four weeks, sometimes longer, and the three-week winter break is not always adequate time to complete the renewal process.

In Eltoum’s sophomore year, he was stopped at the Istanbul airport in transit to the U.S. because the immigration officers demanded he renew his student visa to be allowed to travel, despite being cleared for travel in Sudan. The visa was due to expire the next day. He had to return home and ended up arriving at Yale three weeks after classes began.

“That was the first semester of my sophomore year, and that was definitely a very hard semester because I was just playing catch-up the whole time,” Eltoum said. “That flew into the second semester. Then with Trump being elected, it just ended up making things even worse.”

In the weeks after the ban, Eltoum thought about trying to complete his degree in three years instead of four to minimize the time he spent in the U.S. while the immigration situation was uncertain. To complete his degree early, he overloaded his class schedule that semester, taking five and a half credits. His grades suffered.

Kuhlman, Say and their colleagues at OISS helped Eltoum secure a research job at Yale, so he could stay on campus for the summer of 2017 while he was unable to return home.

Eltoum tried to stay hopeful. Every Friday, he called his parents. They would update him about the tumultuous situation in Sudan, where the government had just slashed subsidies for fuel and food. They would tell him how his three younger brothers were doing. One had enrolled in an IB program back home, intent on following Eltoum’s footsteps to study in the U.S. His parents would not let Trump’s ban deter their sons from a quality American education.

Then in September 2017, Trump issued a third version of the travel ban that removed Sudan from the list of banned countries. But Eltoum wasn’t certain that this would be the end of his immigration challenges. He was advised by OISS not to leave the country for winter break.

“The general feeling of people in Sudan [was] that it [was] a very volatile situation,” Eltoum said. “We had seen between one day and the next, we could be on the ban list, and we could not be on the ban list. One day we were terrorists, and the next day we were not.”

AJ, a Yale affiliate who requested a pseudonym given the sensitivity of the topic, is a citizen of one of the banned countries. His passport was set to expire in late 2016. But civil conflict prevented him from returning home to renew his passport, and in America, the embassy of his home country had been shuttered.

“I would have been effectively stateless if my documents had expired,” AJ said. After consulting with an immigration law clinic, he realized his best option was to seek asylum in the U.S. Individuals seeking asylum have to demonstrate they are unable to return to their home country due to a “well-founded fear of persecution” for an aspect of their identity — such as their religion, race or sexual orientation. AJ is gay.

As such, he found the asylum process difficult and intrusive. The most important step of the process is an interview, during which an asylum officer determines if the applicant’s fear of prosecution is legitimate. So AJ had to find people to testify to and provide evidence for his sexuality.

“When you are talking about your religion — yes, you’re talking about something very personal. But you’re not talking about your emotional labor, who you’re attracted to and how you’re attracted to these people. Who you had sex with. Who is the first person you ever had sex with,” AJ explained. “Those types of details are very embedded in and necessary in the asylum process.”

The process of seeking asylum has only become more complicated under the Trump administration. In the same month that he issued the travel ban, Trump temporarily suspended the U.S. asylum program, capped the number of refugees and indefinitely blocked all refugees from Syria.

Though AJ finally gained asylum in July 2017, his immigration woes are far from over. He still cannot travel outside the U.S. without fear of being denied entry. Under normal circumstances, refugees who lack valid passports can apply for “Refugee Travel Documents” to travel transnationally. But while the travel ban is in effect, asylees from banned countries find it increasingly risky to travel even with a valid Refugee Travel Document.

In theory, the travel ban is meant to provide exemptions for asylees, granted on case-by-case bases. But in practice, few asylees are granted a waiver to bypass the travel ban. In his dissent to the most recent Supreme Court decision, which upheld the travel ban, Justice Stephen Breyer provided evidence that the exemption was effectively nonexistent.

“The State Department reported that during the Proclamation’s first month, two waivers were approved out of 6,555 eligible applicants,” Breyer wrote.

As such, AJ has not been able to leave American borders to see his family since he arrived in the country close to three years ago. In June, it will be three years since he has last seen his parents and his brother. He remains hopeful that the wave of national support for refugees will help his situation.

“People are waking up,” he said. “There is a national consciousness about who they are and to whom they are committed and who they should be protecting.”

While the travel ban and refugee cap dominate headlines, the Trump administration has been quietly working to implement policies that limit opportunities for all international students, not just those affected by the ban. Some executive orders have called into question what students are permitted to do under their statuses.

Kuhlman said that two years after the first order, her office is still “waiting to understand the full implication” of Trump’s policy. Because the Trump administration is still reviewing these orders, the legal limbo “creates more uncertainty for international students.”

The administration signaled its shift in attitude on Aug. 9, 2018, with what it called the Unlawful Presence Policy Memo. “Unlawful presence” is the policy that governs how long students may stay in the country — their buffer period — before they face deportation. Since 1996, students who had violated their student visa status would only start to eat into their buffer period on the day an immigration officer or judge ruled that the student had violated their status. The student would have 180 days to regain proper status or leave the country.

Trump’s memo announced a new way to interpret the unlawful presence policy. Now, when an immigration officer or judge rules that a student has violated their status, immigration officers will subtract the number of days that had passed since the student committed the violation from the 180 day buffer period, effectively shortening it. In this way, the memo introduced harsher penalties for students who violate their visa status.

Students can violate their status in numerous ways, such as working more than 20 hours per week, failing to extend an expiring I-20 document — which serves as evidence for the student’s legal status in the U.S. — or neglecting to report a new residential address within 10 days of moving. If discovered violating their visa, students could be barred from returning to the U.S. for three years, 10 years or permanently.

An international student interviewed, who requested anonymity for fear of legal repercussions, told me they once failed to sign their I-20 before it expired. Another student did not report his new off-campus address within 10 days of moving, because he was unaware of the requirement. In both cases, they rectified the status violation and regained proper status before immigration officials found out.

Mark Gazepis ’21, an international student from Greece, said he thinks that punishing students for flouting the rules on a “first-strike” basis is overly harsh. Gazepis wants to revive the grace period that existed pre-ban, during which students were given the chance to rectify their mistake.

A slew of memos, policy proposals and executive orders point to a general trend in the Trump presidency of making it harder for foreign nationals to work in the U.S. For instance, Trump called for a review of the H-1B program, the primary vehicle for gaining a work visa. An “extreme vetting” procedure pushed by the administration would introduce new hurdles for students seeking to work in the U.S.

Kuhlman expects other such reviews to affect programs like the STEM Optional Practical Training system, which permits recent graduates to work in the U.S for up to three years. But she does not know when they will take effect or what they will entail. She has advised students to start looking for a Plan B in case they are unable to secure a visa to work in the U.S. after graduation. One possible alternative that Kuhlman explained is attending graduate school in the U.S.

Kuhlman said these changes have discouraged international enrollment in U.S. universities. According to the 2018 Open Doors report, published by the U.S. Department of State, the number of newly enrolled international students in the U.S. dropped by 6.3 percent between the 2016–17 and 2017–18 academic years. Graduate school enrollment dropped by 5.5 percent in the same period.

Despite enrollment drops and policy changes, undergraduate applications to Yale from international students have actually increased over the past several years, according to Mark Dunn, director of outreach and communications at Yale’s admissions office.  Dunn declined to comment about the admissions statistics for students from travel ban countries.

Still, some international students have reconsidered their post-graduate plans to stay in the U.S. following Trump’s election, citing concerns about racism and xenophobia. Scarlet Luk, GRD ’19, had been keen to work in the U.S. when she first arrived for graduate school in 2013. But as a person of color, her impulse to leave the country has grown stronger, partially due to the political climate here since the Trump presidency began. She now plans to return to Australia after she completes her doctorate.

“There is a feeling you are not necessarily welcome beyond a certain point,” Luk said.

Since graduating last spring, Gregory Ng ’18 has been working as an intern at two New York City museums while completing his graduate school applications. He hopes to get his master’s from New York University in performance studies before enrolling in a doctorate program in the field. But Ng, who hails from Singapore, has little want or need to stay in the U.S. permanently.

Ng noted that the experiences of international students at Yale are so fractured along lines of nationality and ethnicity that the notion of “‘international-ness” at Yale holds little meaning. Eltoum pointed out that the student visa for a Sudanese citizen is six months, while a student visa for his other international peers is four or five years.

For Eltoum, the pull of a U.S. education remains strong. A degree from Yale is a stepping -stone to achieve his goal of working as a doctor in Sudan, where he sees a strong need. Even during the most difficult time in the Trump presidency, when he was unable to return home, he recognized the value of remaining in the U.S. He still hopes to pursue a medical degree here after he graduates.

“You very much have to dissociate the person who is doing this from the whole country,” Eltoum said. “It did not make me see the quality of education in the U.S. as any less. It’s just at this point now, the U.S. is not a very good place to be a Sudanese citizen.”

For asylees and asylum-seekers like AJ, the desire to live and gain legal status in the U.S. is a question of stability and safety. AJ had been transient for several years before arriving in the U.S after he was forced to leave his home country. He moved between countries where he experienced vicious racism.

“When I arrived in the United States, I was just like, I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to move anywhere else, and I want to be stable, and I want to be on the way to citizenship. And I want to be resettled somewhere. And I want to have a permanent status,” AJ said.

For now, Eltoum and AJ are determined to achieve what they first came to the United States to do. AJ is in the process of gaining a green card and believes that it is only a matter of time before he is able to leave the country to see his family again.

Eltoum finally returned home the summer of 2018. It had been close to two years since he had last seen his family. He was shocked by how much his three younger brothers had grown in the last year and a half. His second brother, 18, who was preparing to enroll in a U.S. university that fall, had matured, stepping up to fill Eltoum’s role as the eldest son in the household.

“My third brother, after me and my second brother, is most aware of the implications of what it means to be a student from Sudan in an American university,” Eltoum said, “[I] went through a lot of issues and struggles, and [my brothers] will learn from that.”

Today, Eltoum mentors first years as an Ezra Stiles first-year counselor and is a molecular,  cellular and developmental biology major. He is preparing to apply to medical school. He fully expects that navigating the application process as a citizen of a country where even tourist visas to the U.S. are often denied will be challenging. He intends to stay in the States to work while waiting to interview with medical schools instead of returning home to minimize the chance of being denied entry on the way back, which would jeopardize his applications.

“[Working as a doctor in Sudan] was my original goal in life, and still remains to be my original goal in life,” he said, “I see the U.S. and the U.S. educational system as a way for me to gain the necessary training, the necessary experience, just to reach me to my goal.”

The summer after returning home, Eltoum spent hours walking around Khartoum, taking in what had changed. Everywhere, new billboards and newly built mosques reminded him of the lost time. He followed the route he used to take to school, before attending university in America, before he learned what it meant to be Sudanese there. He thought about how his younger brother was now a few centimeters taller than him. It saddened him to realize that he had missed out on two years of his brothers’ lives. At least in his mother’s garden, the flowers, spice plants and mango tree were still growing.


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