Even After Judges' Stay, Trump's Travel Ban Leaves Campuses Struggling To Respond

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Mazdak Tootkaboni, a UMass Dartmouth professor from Iran, greets his family after several hours being held at Logan Airport. He was one of the petitioners on the temporary restraining order. (Shannon Dooling/WBUR)
Mazdak Tootkaboni, a UMass Dartmouth professor from Iran, greets his family after several hours being held at Logan Airport. He was one of the petitioners on the temporary restraining order. (Shannon Dooling/WBUR)

Colleges and universities are scrambling to deal with President Trump's ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries. Although a Boston federal court has ruled that the president's order could not keep out two UMass Dartmouth professors (and others like them), school presidents, professors and students say they still don't know what could come next.

Mazdak Tootkaboni is a UMass Dartmouth professor from Iran, and a lawful permanent resident of the U.S., with a green card. So is his wife, Arghavan Louhghalam. Still, they spent about three hours Saturday night, stuck in immigration screening at Boston's Logan Airport.

Then came the judges' ruling, which stays Trump's executive order for seven days. Tootkaboni and Louhghalam were happy to get through immigration — but it wasn't the way professors usually come home from an academic conference in France.

"I was confused," Tootkaboni said at the airport.

He's not the only one. Even with the stay, the turmoil has left scores of professors and their students unsure whether they can leave the country or come back if they do go abroad.

Shiva Dastjerdi, a U.S. citizen, says the president's order has created uncertainty for her father, a permanent U.S. resident. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Shiva Dastjerdi, a U.S. citizen, says the president's order has created uncertainty for her father, a permanent U.S. resident. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

Shiva Dastjerdi is working toward a doctorate in chemistry at Boston University. Her family is from Iran, and she attended Sunday's demonstration against the ban in Copley Square.

Dastjerdi, a U.S. citizen, said her father is stuck in Iran right now even though he has a green card.

"So yeah, everything is kind of confusing," she said.

Dastjerdi said some fellow BU students, who went home to Iran to visit, are still there now too.

How many students, at BU and elsewhere, are in the same boat? It's hard to tell.

Although a spokesman said not many were currently out of the country, 166 UMass employees and "many more students" are citizens of the seven countries listed in the executive order. And UMass President Marty Meehan agreed that it can be difficult to get exact numbers for faculty members as well as students.

"This is a situation where we’re not really sure how many are traveling," Meehan said Sunday, "how many are at academic conferences in different parts of the world."

Meehan said the ban could damage institutions like his.

"It would have a chilling effect on UMass’ ability to attract faculty from around the world, researchers from around the world, students," he said.

Meehan issued a strongly worded statement condemning the ban.

"We are deeply disheartened by this alarming action that has violated the rights of members of the UMass community and many others," the statement read in part. "This is not the country we promised to them when we invited them to study, teach and conduct research here."

Similarly, Boston University President Robert Brown issued a statement calling the executive order "fundamentally inconsistent with the values that are the bedrock of Boston University and indeed, of our pluralistic, welcoming society."

Brown called on the BU community to stand together "and use a clear voice to affirm our principles and voice our deep concerns."

He also advised all those from the listed countries against traveling outside the country for now, "as it places one at risk of not being readmitted to the U.S."

Other universities issued similar expressions of dismay, and similar warnings against travel.

'Distraught And Disturbed'

"This executive order undermines a very important cornerstone of what we stand for as an institution of higher learning," said Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College. Although Pelton emphasized that Emerson "supports diversity in all of its many forms, including political forms," he found that "many, if not most, faculty members are distraught and disturbed by the executive order."

Pelton said it was "very likely" that the faculty would meet in a special session next week to discuss the issue.

Elsewhere, too, professors spoke against the ban and discussed the difficulty of making plans in the face of it.

Malick Ghachem, who teaches history at MIT, said the ban — along with the short-term stay of it — leaves many academics unsure how to make travel plans.

"There will be some uncertainty and a good deal of anxiety," he said.

Ghachem said he'd heard that at least 30 MIT students could be affected by the ban.

The Tech, an independent student newspaper, reported that undergraduate Niki Mossafer Rahmati, who had been visiting her family in Iran, was not permitted to board a connecting flight in Doha, Qatar. Instead, she returned to Tehran, according to The Tech.

"But the university community I think is going to be taking a very strong and unified stance against this," Ghachem said. "It’s really galvanized the university community."

The order has also galvanized lawyers. Ghachem happens to be one himself; he was among a group of a dozen or so who went to the international arrivals terminal at Logan Sunday to offer assistance to anyone needing it.

But he noted how hard it could be to provide assistance at the right time and place, even with a court order. The judges' ruling requires government officials to notify international carriers that fly into Boston that immigration officials here will not detain or return any passengers at Logan Airport based solely on Trump’s order. But because airlines are private companies, not part of the government, the judges’ ruling would not help a passenger fight an airline if it refused to let her board a U.S.-bound plane.

'Unique' Enforcement Issue

"There’s an enforcement issue here that’s really quite unique," Ghachem said. "You don’t get many federal court orders where the degree to which you can enforce them depends on something that’s happening in Dubai."

Ghachem said he thinks the courts will ultimately strike down the ban as unconstitutional. Even before then, he said, he believes the temporary bans will be extended, because the courts had to find that a lawsuit was likely to succeed even to issue a temporary stay.

"It's very hard to get temporary relief like this," Ghachem said. "I mean, federal courts don't just go and issue orders on immigration matters out of the blue."

But he would not bet a client's freedom on that view.

"You know, if I had a client overseas right now," he said, "I would want them in the country, you know, for sure, within seven days."

And now that Mazdak Tootkaboni has landed back in Boston, he won't be going abroad again any time soon.

"Not for a while, I guess," he said with a laugh. "To be on the safe side."

For him, as for other international academics, the future is still up in the air.

Shannon Dooling, Max Larkin and Sharon Brody contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the judges' ruling requires airlines to let affected passengers fly despite the executive order. For reasons of constitutional law, the ruling can affect only government officials, not private companies, and the post has been updated to clarify this point. We regret the error.

This segment aired on January 30, 2017.


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Louise Kennedy Contributor
Louise Kennedy previously worked with The ARTery and as editor of Edify.



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