International Students Nervous about Summer Travel

Engineering student Ahmet Aytekin said he plans to visit family in Turkey this summer and return to college in Maryland this fall, but leaving the United States for the break concerns him.

“I am not worried about going out,” he said, “but I am a little worried about coming back.”

After President Donald Trump signed two executive orders to ban visitors from seven (now six) nations in January and March, international students with valid student visas reported being questioned and delayed by U.S. immigration officials. Although both bans were soon blocked by federal courts, they have left a chilling effect on student travelers.

Aytekin comes from a conflict region in Turkey, he said, and worries that immigration officials will judge him more closely.

Iranian Farzad Salamifar was teaching at the University of Poitier in France when President Trump signed the first travel ban in January. Being only one year from completing his Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa, he worried that he might not be able to return.

After consulting with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the University of Iowa advised Salamifar to return to Iowa immediately, in case the window to return closed quickly.

“I was really worried about the bad influence it would have on my teaching reputation in France,” he told VOA.

The French, he said, were understanding, but he said he left behind a lucrative job to return to complete his studies in the United States. International students in the U.S. are not allowed to work under student visas.

And the U.S. political mood behind the travel ban worries him.

“I was reluctant at first to come back to the United States because of the political situation,” Salamifar said, “but now I am determined to defend myself and other people in my situation.”

Even though courts blocked the travel bans, he said the bans have caused anxiety for many international students, not just those from the nations under the ban: Iran, Syrian, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia. Iraq was removed from the ban.

Salamifar said a Chinese student told him she went on a trip to Mexico and was detained at a U.S. airport for seven hours when she returned.

“These actions have created a lot of confusion, certainly, as well as discouragement,” Lee Seedorff, director of the International Students and Scholars program at the University of Iowa, told VOA.

Since 2007, the University of Iowa has doubled its population of international students from 2,153 in 2007 to 4,540 in 2015, with a large share, some 61 percent, coming from China. These students prefer to go back home over the summer months, but now she said many plan to stay in Iowa City, taking summer classes or just passing the time. This creates a burden on students’ families.

“Some are cutting it very close and unexpected expenses can be difficult for them to pay,” Seedorff said.

Organizations that promote and assist international education disapprove of restrictions on foreign students.

“International educators were some of the most vocal opponents of the ban,” said Cheryl Darrup Boychuck, the U.S. representative of London-based Intelligent Communities Around Students (INCAST). The company was founded in 2011 after Great Britain imposed restrictions on international student visas. That, she said, drove many students from around the world to choose the United States instead of Britain.

She said international programs are a win for everyone, not just students from other lands. Foreign students generally pay full tuition and fees, she noted, which is a financial help to universities.

But Darrup Boychuck said another important benefit of having international students at a U.S. school is their impact on American students.

“The vast majority of students on campus today will not have a study abroad experience, and I think the opportunity to bring the world via these students to campus is one of the most valuable things that a college student can experience from a domestic point of view,” she said.

Fewer than 5 percent of all U.S. college students study abroad, she said. Many will expand their minds and outlooks through their experience with people of a different culture.

“International education is the strongest way to build friendships and ultimately advance global peace,” she said.

Administration officials have defended the ban as well as other immigration measures as necessary to protect the United States from terrorism. The chosen countries were identified as “countries of concern” for terrorism by President Barack Obama, who placed some restrictions on travel from those countries, but did not issue a complete ban on visitors.

Has the political situation in the U.S. affected your plans to study or travel abroad?

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Greg Flakus

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