Travel ban ruling offers universities temporary relief

The United States Supreme Court ruled on 26 June that the injunction on President Donald Trump’s second Executive Order suspending entry from six majority-Muslim countries could be partially lifted.

But, crucially for higher education, the court's order limits the scope of President Trump's travel ban, offering relief, at least temporarily, to US colleges and universities that have offered admission to international students or invited international scholars to their campuses.

It also introduces a new set of uncertainties, particularly around refugees who aspire to study at a US university. It doesn't remove the anti-immigrant sentiment voiced by the Trump administration. And it doesn't offer guidance on how universities should proceed in order to comply with the order.

"I think we're all trying to figure out the details of how that process is going to work," Jonathan Riskind, assistant vice president of public affairs at the American Council on Education, told a gathering of college media professionals last week in Washington.

The president's ban, ordered in March, would impose a 90-day ban on entry of foreign nationals from six Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The ban's stated purpose is to give federal officials time to develop standards "to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists", the executive order says.

The ban was blocked by lower court rulings. On 26 June, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case this autumn. It noted that the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had concluded that a 90-day ban on entry would “harm the state” by preventing students from the designated nations who had been admitted to university in the US from entering this country.

The president similarly ordered a 120-day halt to decisions on applications for and travel by refugees into the United States to allow officials time to review whether additional procedures are necessary to ensure asylum-seekers "do not pose a threat" to national security. He also ordered a cap on the total number of refugees at 50,000 a year.

This order, too, was blocked by the lower court of appeals, which said a reasonable observer, familiar with the majority-Muslim nature of the countries and statements by President Trump during the election campaign, would conclude that the order was motivated “principally by a desire to exclude Muslims from the United States, not by considerations relating to national security”.

'Credible claim of a bona fide relationship'

The Supreme Court’s ruling on 26 June exempts from Trump's revised travel ban foreigners – including refugees – from the six countries if they have "a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States".

That would include students who have been admitted into a US university as well as academics offered employment or invited to lecture in the United States, the justices said. It would also include students or academics with a close family relationship with someone in the US.

This would apply to refugees whether or not a 50,000-person cap level had been reached.

Entry of refugees with no prior connection to the United States will continue to be blocked, a decision which Dr Esther D Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA, a US-based association of international educators, called "a devastating and unfair limitation on the very reason that countries provide refuge".

There are questions over how the condition of a ‘credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States’ will be interpreted and implemented by immigration officials.

There are other uncertainties as well. Given the timeframe laid out in Trump's orders, even the court questions whether the challenges to Trump's executive orders will be moot by the first session of the October term, when it will hear oral arguments.

By then, most US universities will have begun their autumn semesters. Many campus officials are already bracing for enrolment declines as international students look for a more welcoming atmosphere.

"We continue to be deeply concerned both that the ban could still be upheld, and by the message the ban itself sends to students and scholars around the globe," says Josh Taylor, associate vice-chancellor of global programmes at New York University, which enrols more than 15,000 international students, the largest number of any US university, according to a June report from the US Department of Homeland Security. About 120 international students are from the six countries named in the executive order.

Undergraduates who are worried about entry issues have the option of studying at one of New York University's degree-granting campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, or starting out in a first-year programme at one of its global academic centres in Florence, London or Paris, Taylor said.

At Grinnell College, a private liberal arts college in Iowa with a student body that is about 18% international, advisers are urging caution "because the current political climate for international travellers is unpredictable", says Karen Edwards, associate dean and director of international student affairs. Many Grinnell students from those six countries have chosen to remain in the United States for the summer, she said.

Among them is Deqa Aden, a Grinnell senior double-majoring in psychology and political science, who also cancelled plans last spring to study in Denmark and expects to stay in the US until she graduates, which she hopes to do in May 2018. "I just didn't want to take the risk," says Aden, who is from the Republic of Somaliland in the northwest of Somalia.

Riskind, during his conference presentation, encouraged university media professionals to highlight stories of "hard-working students, high-achievers who represent the best and the brightest from all walks of life", as a way to raise awareness of the value they bring to campus and of the challenges they now face.

"People can forget that there are real lives affected by this," he said.