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Universities warn court of harm caused by travel ban

The American Council on Education and 29 other higher education associations submitted an amicus brief last Monday to the United States Supreme Court in the case examining President Donald Trump's second attempt to ban refugees and immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.

They said the Executive Order sends a “clarion message of exclusion to millions around the globe that America’s doors are no longer open to foreign students, scholars, lecturers and researchers” and directly threatens universities’ ability to attract the international students and scholars “who are essential to the success of American educational institutions”.

The Executive Order released on 6 March blocked travel to the US for 90 days for nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It had been revised from an earlier order in January that caused chaos and confusion for colleges and universities.

Institute of International Education figures for 2015-16 indicate that 15,400 students and 2,100 academics in the US came from one of the six countries, most of them from Iran.

The Supreme Court agreed in June to consider two rulings on the Executive Order from the Fourth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals, Trump v International Refugee Assistance Project and Trump v Hawaii.

Justices allowed aspects of the order to take effect in the interim, but left the larger constitutional questions related to religious discrimination and presidential authority to be considered this autumn.

The associations submitting the amicus brief represent several thousand institutions of higher education and educate, employ and invite onto their campuses more than a million individuals from other countries each year.

American Council on Education President, Ted Mitchell, has written that these individuals “yield an estimated economic impact of US$32.8 billion and support 400,000 US jobs, according to recent estimates”.

The Executive Order of 6 March puts those benefits at risk, the groups said.

They said the order would prevent universities from achieving their mission of global engagement for which they rely on visiting students, scholars and faculty to advance their educational goals, and submitted that the lower court decisions to suspend the ban should be affirmed.

“Foreign students, faculty and researchers come to this country because our institutions are rightly perceived as the destinations of choice compared to all others around the globe,” the groups said.

“The Executive Order has fundamentally altered those positive perceptions with the stroke of a pen.”

They said from the moment the order was signed, prospective students expressed serious concerns about attending American colleges and universities. Faculty recruits were similarly deterred from accepting teaching and research positions.

And scholars based abroad pulled out of academic conferences in the United States, either because they were directly affected or because they are concerned about the Executive Order’s “harmful impact on academic discourse and research worldwide”, the groups said in the brief.

The group argued that it is essential that the United States maintain its deep commitment to ensuring the free flow of ideas and people that is critical to progress in a democratic society. The inquiry, innovation and invention that take place every day within American colleges’ and universities’ classrooms, libraries and laboratories depend on the ability of scholars and students to travel to and from the United States.

“The Executive Order, however, severely undermines the ability of American colleges and universities to fulfil their commitment to serving their students, their communities, the United States, and the world through innovative teaching and research.

“That commitment relies on maintaining a consistent pipeline of the most talented international students and scholars, who bring with them unique skills and perspectives that inure to the benefit of their classmates, colleagues and the communities, small and large, served by amici’s member institutions.”

The amicus brief stresses the commitment of US institutions to the security of US campuses and of the United States and to working with government to ensure the visa system prevents entry of individuals who might present a threat.

“But at the same time, the Executive Order jeopardises the vital contributions made by foreign students, scholars and faculty by telling the world in the starkest terms that American colleges and universities are no longer receptive to them.”

The Executive Order’s unwelcoming message would “impair the cross-border exchange of people and ideas that is critical to [US universities’] success and their ability to contribute to the success of the country as a whole”.

It sent a “stark message to the world that America is no longer the welcoming place it has been for the brightest foreign minds”.

The brief outlined the extent to which universities rely on their foreign student intake, citing many examples, including Rutgers University, which enrols about 8,500 international students from 125 countries and employs more than 1,200 international scholars from more than 80 countries; and the University of Maryland, which has 5,800 international students and more than 1,200 international scholars; and the University of California, Los Angeles, which has 11,513 international students and 3,512 international scholars engaged in teaching and research.

The brief notes that the Supreme Court had previously recognised the importance of international diversity to the educational success of US colleges and universities, enabling regular interactions with students and professors from different cultures, with different life experiences, who have also confronted different social and political conditions.

It noted specifically the benefits of having students from the banned source countries. For instance, students from Syria would be able to contribute to understanding of the consequences of the civil war in Syria in a way that no textbook or lecture ever could.

Similarly, Iranian students could offer a unique perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the recent nuclear agreement and other aspects of United States foreign policy – which President Trump raised at the United Nations last week – that students could not absorb simply by reading commentary pieces in domestic newspapers.

Losing talent to competitors

The brief also spoke of fears that universities across the country will lose highly competitive candidates from the affected countries to institutions outside of the United States if the order remains in effect.

It said Britain, Canada, France and Germany have all launched funding programmes to recruit foreign researchers away from US universities. Canadian universities had seen increases in international applications.

Universities have changed their admissions and recruitment strategies to try to address potential declines but continued uncertainty would only make their task more difficult.

The groups warned: “Right now there is a global bidding war for talented international students, particularly in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields. Foreign countries give substantial cash bonuses and other benefits to international scholars to entice them to leave the United States.

“When the US immigration policy manifests a message of exclusion – not to mention an actually exclusionary effect, as here – fewer students and scholars choose to attend our universities. They instead go to other countries where they are welcomed with open arms.”

The groups also noted that shortly after the Executive Order was enacted more than 3,000 international scholars signed a petition to boycott international academic conferences held in the US in solidarity with those affected by the order.

This proposed boycott was not a hollow threat, nor a mere political statement, the brief said.

“The Executive Order creates a broad fear of unreliable immigration policy that discourages scholars from choosing to come to this country rather than another.”

It cites the example of many participants pulling out of the annual conference of the International Studies Association – one of the oldest interdisciplinary associations dedicated to understanding international, transnational and global affairs – in late February in Baltimore.

In addition more than 43,000 American scholars – including 62 Nobel Laureates; 146 recipients of prestigious awards like the Fields Medal, Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Fellowship; and 521 members of the national academies of sciences, engineering, and arts – had signed an online petition explaining that the Executive Order “limits collaborations with researchers from these nations by restricting entry of these researchers to the US and can potentially lead to departure of many talented individuals who are current and future researchers and entrepreneurs in the US.”

Foreign institutions also cancelled their own conferences in response to the order, the groups noted.

For example, a conference sponsored by the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies was scheduled to take place in Shiraz, Iran, in March, but could not proceed due to the travel difficulties posed by the order and the related uncertainty around who, if anyone, would be able to attend. This included US professors who had planned to participate to consult with fellow academics in that unique field of study.
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