Late last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order, named "Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry To The United States," banning entry to the United States from seven countries. These seven countries include Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia. The order severely restricts immigration from all seven Muslim countries and suspends refugee admission for 120 days, barring all Syrian refugees indefinitely. Since then, a U.S. District Judge, James Robart of Seattle, issued a nationwide block on the executive order and it is currently pending in the United States Court of Appeals.
The executive order has sparked numerous protests, rallies, and actions of opposition from all levels, including multiple rallies right here in Rochester and across the country. Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren has also recently updated Rochester’s sanctuary city resolution to make sure they can do all they can to protect everyone in the community while remaining within the laws outlined by the federal court system and their attorney general.
The Executive Order and RIT
In a local context these policies have already affected RIT students and faculty. A Yemen-born researcher at RIT left for an academic conference in Saudi Arabia just days before the executive order was passed, leaving them stranded there. Traveling abroad for conferences and events is commonplace for RIT students and faculty, and not only is this researcher stuck abroad, but other students and faculty will be left unable to attend these types of events.
RIT’s response to the issue has consisted of efforts to protect and help international students at RIT and support RIT as a global campus and community. RIT President Bill Destler signed the American Council on Education’s sign-on letter for U.S. universities to express their concerns and principles regarding international students and faculty in institutions across the nation. Destler also stated that RIT will do everything in its legal powers to protect and support international members of the community. The Division of Student Affairs and the Department of Human Resources are currently making sure all individuals who need support they need. The board of trustees is meeting later this month to discuss possible future actions as well.
An excerpt from the letter reads: “Our nation can only maintain its global scientific and economic leadership position if it encourages those talented people to come here to study and work. America is the greatest magnet for talented people from around the world and it must remain so.”
“Our nation can only maintain its global scientific and economic leadership position if it encourages those talented people to come here to study and work. America is the greatest magnet for talented people from around the world and it must remain so,” stated the American Council on Education's sign-on letter.
The Student Body Responds
RIT’s Student Government also passed a resolution recently, SG 65.03, which is an official response to the executive order, stating that SG disagrees with the executive order and that it will do all that it can to support affected members of the RIT community.
According to SG Vice President Amar Bhatt, the resolution’s intention is not to take a political stance, but rather to stand in solidarity with members of the RIT community that are effected. The resolution calls for support to the 45 students and nine faculty who are currently affected, education on what the executive order means for students right now, in the future, and information on what they can do about it. With students from over 100 countries and alumni living in even more, the possibility that these immigration policies expand to other countries is also a major concern.
Currently, 80 applications are being held from students applying to RIT from the countries listed in the travel ban at this time. However, future students from other countries are not the only members of the community who will now face obstacles in performing normal student and personal activities.
Stories of students' parents being unable to come to graduation, students unable to go home for the summer, and students afraid to even travel domestically within the U.S. are becoming more and more common. Even students from other RIT campuses abroad are unable to come to Rochester. Not only that, but CPT, OPT, H1Bs and other work visas may be affected as well, stopping international students already here in Rochester from getting employed for co-ops, full time jobs, and even from staying and working in the U.S. after college.
“We need to start thinking about what it means if we want to be a truly global campus,” says Bhatt. Student Government wishes to push RIT to take whatever action that is within their legal and political jurisdiction to resist these policies. While there have been some concerns about SG taking a stance on what has been labeled as a partisan issue, “the reason for passing this resolution is not to take a political side stance, but to support the values of the RIT community,” says SG President Andrea Shaver.
SG is looking to protect RIT students and faculty and help them to continue to do the things they need to do as students and faculty. In this way, the issue is a student issue more than anything else, and SG is going to try to make sure all students have equal access to education, whether it is getting co-ops, going abroad for conferences, or even coming to RIT to study in the first place. “The fact that they can’t see their parents or they can’t go home for family emergencies or advance their academic career with conferences or co-ops that might be required, this is really going to start affecting the question of how does the RIT curriculum fall in line for those students and how can we help them succeed in the same way every other student does,” Bhatt continued.
International Student Perspectives
International students have been expressing their concerns as well. Sanketh Moudgalya, a Ph.D. student here at RIT, has multiple friends in his Ph.D. program from the affected countries. As Ph.D. students, they must attend conferences, most of which are abroad, but cannot because if they do go they would not be able to come back. Without these conferences, Ph.D. students often either cannot finish their program or are extremely hindered from finding a job after, due to a loss of networking opportunities and experience. “This affects us on a personal level as much as this affects us on a professional level,” said Moudgalya.
“I don’t think that things are going to get worse just because the country is going to be affected economically if this happens. Most of the immigrants from those countries are in very good positions working in the U.S,” he continued. International students actually make up most of our graduate students here at RIT, and our industry partners, many of which who have also been speaking out against the ban, hire a large amount of them as well. “At least the students — who want to come here legally and work here legally — at least let them come through,” Moudgalya added.
Another international student here at RIT, Nikhil Srivastava, expressed similar concerns. While neither him nor his close friends have been directly affected by the executive order, he is friends with multiple people who are involved with protesting and taking actions against it. “I have a friend who is a New Yorker, but her roots are from her home country and her religion. If I were to step into her shoes I will see that the Muslim community has been attacked and now they have to defend themselves and their lifestyles, religion and everything.”
RIT is known for practicing and encouraging diversity. With students and faculty from over 100 countries, diversity is what RIT thrives on. However there are some people in the community who still do not fully support international students as part of the RIT community. A Muslim mural in the dorm tunnels was recently defaced, and a counter petition to stop SG from passing a resolution on the executive order gained a noticeable following, for example.
“We should educate the community on the strategic importance on what multicultural diversity is, we should promote awareness of multiculturalism and there should be communication from, at least, peer to peer,” he added. Srivastava suggested having seminars or conferences to talk about the effects on international students and educate them about not only how to deal with the situation but to also educate the RIT community as a whole on awareness and inclusiveness. Already, these types of events have sprung up in the community. There was an open forum on Feb. 2 for students to express their concerns about the executive order. There is also a Gray Matter discussion on Muslim issues on Feb. 24, and recent Student Government and academic senate meetings have seen multiple people step up to share their concerns and ideas.
“We’ve got to face these problems like we face life, there are going to be obstacles but we have to overcome together,” Srivastava concluded.
Going back to RIT’s international community as a whole in addition to those from the affected countries, Ethelia Lung, another RIT international student, expressed concern about possible changes to the requirements of the H1B visas, which are non-immigrant visas that allow U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in certain occupations. Currently, the Trump administration is proposing to raise the minimum salary for H1B visa holders from $60,000 to $130,000. “I think for people who spent money and took a chance to elect to come here and study it is really unfair. I can barely make $60,000 at a starting salary, there’s no way recent college graduates can make that much,” added Lung.
But beyond all of that, Lung thinks RIT as a community needs to have an open conversation to address the issues affecting RIT’s international students. “You have a lot of people who are being silent because that’s just not in their nature or they are not given a platform where they feel safe. That’s something we need,” she said. “I think the biggest point is really about empathy and listening to people outside of what you’re used to listening to. That’s the only way we are going to decide, as a community, how to go forward together.”
“You have a lot of people who are being silent because that’s just not in their nature or they are not given a platform where they feel safe. That’s something we need,” Lung said. “I think the biggest point is really about empathy and listening to people outside of what you’re used to listening to. That’s the only way we are going to decide, as a community, how to go forward together.”
Destler has said that he has gone as far as he will go without further approval from the board of trustees, and the faculty in academic senate are trying to pass a resolution similar to SG’s in order to stand in solidarity with the students effected. However, that does not mean that students, on an individual level, cannot and should not support all members of the RIT community. The SG resolution is meant as a collective student voice standing up, but individual voices are also essential. “The student body saying something on the issue means more than just the lobbyists and government community relations going to Albany and saying this is what our constituents want,” Shaver concluded.
As mentioned before, there are many opportunities to do just that, as well as get involved in other various ways. Members of the RIT community who want to make their voices heard should do so. There is a Gray Matter discussion on Feb. 24 about Muslim issues and a leadership conference on March 4 to help students lead social change.
Other ways to get involved include registering to vote, voting, and contacting your elected officials in every way possible. To find information on your representatives visit www.govtrack.us. Participating locally in charitable and non-profit organizations, especially to those most in need right now, couldimmensly beneficial to people affected by the current political climate as well. The Center For Leadership and Civic Engagement lists many different organizations working on a variety of causes that students can help with.
Whatever your stance on these issues, it is important to have an open conversation with the community, both with words and with actions. So go out, talk to people, volunteer at organizations, attend events and support your fellow RIT students.