Over 60 Columbia students, the majority of whom are graduate students, are directly affected by President Donald Trump’s executive order, which bars immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries to the United States.
Following its enactment two weeks ago, the University responded to the executive order by issuing a public statement, in which University President Lee Bollinger condemned it as “discriminatory.” Students also responded with shock and disgust: the week that the order was announced, hundreds of international students and allies gathered on Low Steps to protest the ban. Now, although the ban has been temporarily suspended by a federal circuit judge, affected students fear that it could be reinstated at any time, limiting their ability to leave the United States.
Facing this uncertain future, targeted students have called upon the University to secure their future studies with guaranteed year-round housing, legal and financial support, and outspoken opposition to Trump’s order. But while the University has already expanded some of its resources and advising for these students, taking further action poses the unique challenge of safeguarding students against an order whose future is largely unpredictable.
If a travel ban is enacted, affected students could be separated from their families for years and may have to choose between their family abroad and their education at Columbia. For graduate students in particular, a travel ban could impede the completion of a degree due to a lack of access to research opportunities, sources, adequate funds, and conferences.
The University’s response to the ban has continued in recent weeks—David Austell, the associate provost and director of the International Students & Scholars Office, later sent an email in which he recommended that all affected students avoid international travel. Austell later estimated that 65 Columbia students would be directly affected by the ban.
Austell has since expanded the resources at ISSO to better advise and meet the needs of affected students. And at a recent Senate plenary, Bollinger reiterated the University’s condemnation of the ban and expressed its intention to support affected students.
“It strikes at the heart of what we are about and therefore we need to say that this is wrong from our standpoint,” said Bollinger. “This is significantly related to legal determination, and if we can help our students and faculty through the provision of pro bono legal services we are pleased and proud to do that.”
At the rally following the ban, the International Students’ Working Group released a list of demands to the University calling for summer housing for affected students and continued financial support.
According to Zeinab Alsadat Azarbadegan, a third-year Ph.D. student and a founding member of the International Students’ Working Group, Austell met with members of the International Students’ Working Group on Monday to discuss their demands. Azarbadegan described the meeting as promising, and the group is waiting for further response from Bollinger as to what the University can do to meet its demands.
Affected students include non-U.S. citizens and students with a passport from any of the seven countries targeted by the ban. This classification includes students of dual nationality (as long as their second nationality is not American) and U.S. permanent residents.
A first-year student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science from Iran, who asked to remain anonymous, immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 14 years old and is currently a U.S. permanent resident. Due to the current executive order, her family is facing financial worries as well as the fear of forever being separated from relatives in Iran.
“My parents mostly depended on the money: Because of the sanctions that are on Iran, you can’t directly have your bank account transfer the money for you. What we would do is pay people in Iran in tomans, so they would come here and they would give us the dollars,” she said. “But now without people being allowed to come in, you basically cannot bring your money here. It’s causing substantial financial problems for us.”
However, not all affected students are in the same legal situation. The status of Syrian students, in particular, is extremely uncertain. A senior at the School of General Studies from Syria, who asked not to be named, expressed his concern to Spectator that he does not have anywhere to go if he is forced to leave the United States. , since he cannot return to Syria. He is a U.S. permanent resident and has lived in the United States with his family for three years but is not a citizen.
“I’ve just heard recently that all immigration applications for Syrians are being put on hold, so that’s including for naturalization. I’m not sure that I will become an American citizen in a couple of years from now,” he said.
An Iranian Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences told Spectator that he expects to complete his degree within the next two and a half years, during which he cannot return home and see his family in Iran. Once he has completed his degree, he will be out of status. Under the Trump administration, he may be faced with the choice of remaining in the United States undocumented or returning to Iran.
“I can’t do research outside of the U.S. for the next two and a half years. I can’t do research, I can’t go home—that means I can’t visit my family, that means that I can’t collect whatever I need to finish my Ph.D. degree, and this has put an enormous burden on us to find alternative ways, both in terms of communicating with our families and in terms of gaining access to our research material,” the Iranian Ph.D. student said.
Some affected students are not even residents of the seven Muslim-majority countries. A Ph.D. student with dual citizenship in Britain and a nation affected by the ban, told Spectator that she has been advised not to leave the country. She cannot return to Britain and her family, who lives there, cannot visit her from Britain.
The ban also creates unique challenges for graduate students who need to do research abroad, attend academic conferences, and receive reduced income during the summer through the University.
“If your teaching assistant has gone for fieldwork outside of the country and is due to teach you the following semester, but they can’t because they can’t get back into the country, what are you doing to do? If your scholars need to go on conferences abroad, they’re not going to be able to do that anymore. If you want to invite people from these countries, not even from these seven countries, but people with dual nationality living all over the world, who have an affiliation with these countries to come and take part in your conferences or research projects, that’s all of a sudden not allowed, so in a way it’s a kind of ethnic cleansing of the University,” the British-Iranian student said.
The International Students’ Working Group views the executive order as one part of a general attack by the Trump administration against international students, and for that reason has included in its demands that the University set up a standing committee of students, faculty, and administrators to respond to such policies.
“This is an attack on the institution of the University and on international students and their future in this country,” Alsadat Azarbadegan said.