Over the summer, Mohammad-Hassan Lotfi was hoping to receive the rarest of treats: a visit from his family.
Thanks to the Trump administration’s recent executive order on immigration, that visit is on hold — along with Lotfi’s long-term future in the country where he’s studied and lived for the past six years.
Lotfi is from Iran, one of seven countries named in the executive order. The measure forbids citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen from entering the country for the next 90 days.
That means students like Lotfi, who is pursuing a PhD in electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, risk interrupting their studies permanently if they leave the country.
“And nobody can visit us here,” said Lotfi, who has seen his family only once during his time at Penn. “So it means that as long as we stay here we cannot visit our families, which is very bad.”
The order also complicates Lotfi’s future plans. He had hoped to complete a postdoctoral fellowship in the U.S. and perhaps apply for a permanent work visa afterward. But he believes the political uncertainty will dissuade universities and employers from hiring Iranians. His family is urging him to look elsewhere for opportunities.
“I know a lot of my friends are already contacting lawyers in Canada to apply for work visa,” said Lotfi, whose research focuses on the intersection of technology and internet policy. “And if I know that I cannot visit my family for a couple of years, I will leave the country and apply for postdoc in Canada or Europe.”
Universities across the region are still sifting through what exactly the order means for students from the affected countries. At the moment, they’re largely urging people to stay in the United States if they can.
“We advise all nationals from the affected countries to defer travel until there is some clarification of the situation,” University of Pennsylvania officials wrote in a campus-wide e-mail.
Temple, which has 67 students from the seven countries, is taking a similar approach.
“We know if you stay here you’re okay here,” said Temple spokesperson Ray Betzner. “If you leave, it’s getting back in that’s a serious issue.”
LaSalle University issued a similar statement.
“Currently our Multicultural and International Center is reaching out to each LaSalle student affected by the Executive Order,” said spokesperson Jaine Lucas. “We are advising them not to make travel plans and to carefully reconsider any travel plans they may have already made in the next 90 days to other countries, including Canada, as re-entry into the U.S. is no longer a certainty.”
Among the seven countries named in the executive order, Iran has by far the largest footprint at American universities.
There were just more than 12,000 Iranians studying in the U.S. during the 2015-16 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education. The vast majority are graduate students.
The number of Iranians at American universities has mushroomed over the past decade, up from just 2,420 students in 2005-06. Only ten other countries have more students studying in the U.S.
Lotfi said that most of his countrymen have a positive view of the U.S. and that it is seen as a prime spot for top-level research.
“I think Iranians in general have a good picture of U.S.A. and their people. That’s why a lot of people come to U.S.A. from Iran. They know that they will be welcome here and they can work here and make their dreams come true,” he said. “But I’m not sure they’re going to do that after these acts.”
Another Iranian studying in the U.S., who did not want her name used for fear it would compromise future attempts to earn a visa, said it’s difficult to do certain types of medical research in Iran. As a result, many Iranians seek opportunities stateside.
Her parents were planning to attend her dissertation defense in a few months, she said, but no longer will be able to make the trip.
“Obviously this is a very difficult time for many of the students here,” said Firooz Aflatouni, a professor of electrical and systems engineering who has Iranian students working in his lab. “A lot of people are in shock mode, a lot of the students. At the same time I think we should wait for three months to see what happens.”
Lotfi is studying in the U.S. on an F1 student visa, which he says is typical for Iranian students. Most Iranians receive single-entry visas, which means they must re-apply every time they want to leave and re-enter the United States. Only in the last five years did the U.S. begin issuing multiple-entry visas to Iranian nationals.
That means travel back and forth to Iran was already tricky. Now, said Lotfi, it is a non-starter.
Even before the executive order, many international students were wary, says Jessica Sandberg, director of international admissions at Temple University.
“There were some questions about how friendly our campuses would be to international students after the election,” said Sandberg. “We wanted to be responsive to that.”
Temple is among about 60 colleges and universities promoting the twitter hashtag #YouAreWelcomeHere, part of a broader campaign to ensure international students and applicants aren’t dissuaded from attending American universities. Temple recently posted a YouTube video as part of the effort.
Mohammad-Hassan Lotfi wants to rally Iranian students at Penn and elsewhere in response to the executive order. Lotfi is helping organize an event Thursday night for Iranian students to discuss the travel ban and consider drafting a letter to university brass.
“We need to gather together, talk about these challenges and think about what we can do and how we can plan,” he said.
Lotfi is due to graduate in the next few months, and so the weight of this executive order won’t fall as hard on him as it will others who have just begun their graduate studies.
“Either they should leave their PhD incomplete and think about going to other countries or going back. Or they should stay here and deal with all these consequences,” he said. “So in our community I consider myself lucky.”