Cruelty at the Border
Whatever the results of legal challenges, the executive order barring travel to the U.S. from certain Muslim nations will drive foreign scholars and students to think more favorably about other -- more welcoming -- places, argues Robert Quinn.
As I type this, my eyes flicker over my smartphone, anxiously looking for a text to show that a scholar we once helped has been allowed back into the United States after brief trip abroad. He has lived and worked here 10 years and raised a beautiful family. His three children are American citizens. His crime back home in Syria was peacefully fighting for democracy and human rights, work he has continued in this country.
His alleged offense here? He comes from there.
Airports around the country and around the world have been unnecessarily thrown into chaos and confusion in recent weeks as a result of an executive order by the Trump administration to bar travel to the United States from nationals of seven predominantly Muslim nations. Immediately after the order, senior citizens, solo travelers and parents with children were all delayed, turned back and, in some cases, detained -- but not because of who they are or what they have done. On the contrary -- it was because of where they come from and how they might pray.
Although partial clarifications from the administration regarding green card holders and some dual nationals, and subsequent court orders, have at least temporarily mitigated some of the order’s negative impacts, grave and lasting damage has already been done. The “gotcha” imposition of the blanket bans on entry, and even on re-entry for those who were here and showed themselves to pose no threat, expose the administration’s predisposition to paint with a broad brush. As a result, even if the legal challenges ultimately reverse the order in its entirety, all immigrants, refugees and visa holders will be forced to live with uncertainty and doubt about their future prospects in the United States.
Among those most affected have been many scholars and students at American colleges and universities, including some we at Scholars at Risk, an international network of higher education institutions and individuals, have worked to protect: scholars and student leaders who risk everything to stand up to authoritarian states and militant radicals alike.
Stand up for what? For values essential to higher education, values America has traditionally stood for: freedom of thought, inquiry, expression and belief. Scholars at Risk offers them a lifeboat so they can keep fighting for those values in a safe place. This rash executive order threatens to sink that lifeboat.
It imposes hardship on the people caught outside, even while it denies support to those fighting for freedom and democracy in their home countries, often against the very same forces intent on harming the United States.
It also imposes huge costs in time and resources on host campuses, whose staff members and leadership are already going to heroic efforts to help stranded scholars and students get back or otherwise to resume their studies, teaching and research.
It means campuses and industry alike can expect even more extensive delays in processing study, work and visitor visas, and possibly higher rates of denials of requests. The latter not because applicants have done anything inappropriate, but because the executive order suggests that instead of showing the valuable, creative work that they want to do during their time in the United States, scholars and students must somehow prove that they don’t want to do unspecified harmful acts imagined by a fear-infused administration.
Meanwhile those currently in this country will be advised not to leave here unless absolutely necessary. And this is not just for people from the seven countries flagged in the executive order. They are just the first wave, as administration officials have already suggested publicly that additional countries may be added. Already scholars and students in America are canceling field research, exchanges and conference participations, making studying and working here less attractive. But equally it means straining families and agonizing decisions to skip weddings, births, visits to aging parents and funerals. Arbitrarily forcing such decisions through blanket, rash actions -- in the administration’s terms, “ripping off the Band-Aid” -- does not strengthen America. It makes us weaker.
Inevitably the executive order will drive foreign scholars and students who are considering study or work abroad to think more favorably about other, more welcoming places to make their careers, including Great Britain, Europe and even China and the Gulf nations. Already there is talk of scholars abroad skipping annual conferences in the United States and moving major academic projects elsewhere. This risks making American higher education and education-dependent industries less competitive, and that may ultimately cost our nation jobs, let alone incalculable costs to its honor and prestige. Driving foreign scholars and students away isn’t smart and won’t make us safer. Real security comes not from such shortsightedness but from seeing over the horizon.
What should American colleges and universities do now?
- Keep doing what they do best. Already many institutions have publicly communicated their commitment to core higher education values and their support for students and scholars directly impacted by the executive order -- those caught outside and those inside the United States alike. They should be commended for this, and for their behind-the-scenes efforts to mitigate the harms and cruelties of the executive order. (What if alumni who are proud of their institution’s response sent a check to show their support? Institutions could use the funds to support vulnerable scholars and students hurt by the order.)
- Redouble efforts to seek, support and tell the truth. The executive order operationalizes fear and a distrust of the procedures and American personnel engaged in vetting visitors, but without any coherent data or analysis in support of those views. Universities, scholars and students have an obligation to gather, share and present data to inform the debate and any future policy adjustments, which may have major effects not only for higher education but also the entire nation. Such efforts should include gathering data and stories on the people affected by the new restrictions, and sharing that information with elected officials, policy makers and the media so that the negative impacts of the order are widely known.
- Continue to build inclusive dialogue on campuses, in communities and across the nation. Colleges and universities should invite those inside America who are affected by the executive order to tell their stories about the order’s impact on their lives -- to allow their stories and bravery to stand in contrast to the fear and cruelty of the executive order. They should organize conferences and public events to expose those impacts. And they should continue to invite scholars and students from abroad -- especially those from targeted countries and those at risk for their work and for supporting free inquiry and expression -- to work, study, visit and attend conferences and events. Even if their applications are denied, we must insist on the inclusion of such scholars and students in our research and learning communities, even as we expose the arbitrary and shortsighted nature of their exclusion.
Robert Quinn is the executive director of Scholars at Risk, a network of over 450 higher education institutions in 35 countries headquartered at New York University and dedicated to protecting threatened scholars and university communities worldwide. For information on hosting threatened scholars, joining the network or otherwise supporting Scholars at Risk, visit www.scholarsatrisk.org.
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