Immigration ban: Situation for some UI students 'very unstable'

Zahra Shamsi has a brother she hasn't seen in two-and-a-half years.

And Rezvan Shahoei hasn't been home since 2012.

It's not for lack of desire. These Iranian-born graduate students at the University of Illinois are on student visas that allowed them one entry into the United States. If they leave, they have to reapply for permission to enter.

Under normal circumstances, that can take weeks or months, but it's impossible for at least the next 90 days after President Donald Trump issued an executive order restricting travel from seven countries, including Iran.

The two doctoral candidates are among more than 140 UI students worried about how the new order will affect their academic careers.

"I can't plan on my future anymore. Anything can happen suddenly. It makes it very unstable," Shamsi said Monday.

Shamsi, 27, came to the UI in January 2015 to get her doctorate in chemical engineering. She had heard about the UI from classmates and friends and knew it was one of the top schools in her field.

She hasn't been home since and now has postponed her plans to travel to Iran next summer for fear she could get stranded there.

It was already difficult for Iranian nationals to get student visas, the two students said.

With no U.S. embassy in Iran, those who want to study in the United States must travel to the neighboring countries of Turkey, Armenia or Dubai to apply for a visa. They fill out a form asking "every detail you can imagine" to apply for an interview, Shamsi said. Those who are accepted are questioned, fingerprinted and undergo a background check, which can take months. If they're cleared, they have to go back to that country to get their passports stamped with the visa.

Shamsi was lucky. It only took 30 days to get her visa. But some of her friends have waited six months.

And some students are rejected multiple times, said Shahoei, 30, a graduate student in physics.

"You can imagine how hard and how expensive it is," she said. "I really think people do not realize what we have been through already. When the executive order says 'Make it harder' ... what can you do more than this?"

A student's major is a factor. Some students get multiple-entry visas, allowing them to travel back and forth to Iran (until the recent ban), but they tend to be in art or other non-scientific fields, Shahoei said.

If a student wants to study aerospace engineering, where much of the funding comes from the Department of Defense or Department of Energy, "it's impossible," Shahoei said. "Don't even try. You have to go to Canada."

One trip home since 2010

Shahoei, who is studying computational physics, is barred from entering any national lab or using any supercomputers funded by the Department of Energy. She can only use those funded by the National Science Foundation. She is also excluded from attending certain conferences, and can't travel to Germany to meet with research colleagues even though other international students in her lab regularly go.

She understands the government's caution, but wanted to emphasize that Iranians who make it here "have been vetted so heavily" already.

Shahoei has visited Iran just once since enrolling at the UI in August 2010. She went back in December 2012, hoping to stay a month while renewing her visa. She had a return ticket for Jan. 10, but it took two months for her visa to be approved.

She had no access to her U.S. bank accounts during that time. Her PayPal account was frozen when she tried to use it from Iran, which was still under U.S. sanctions and considered a terrorist state. Her adviser ensured her rent was paid while she was gone.

Her father visited in 2014, and her mom had planned to come next summer, "but it's not possible now," she said.

'It's really difficult'

Shamsi's parents visited last summer, but it wasn't easy. It took them several months to get a visa from the U.S. embassy in Armenia. On the second leg of their flight to the United States, they were detained in Turkey because the embassy had put the wrong date on her mother's visa, she said.

They stayed in Istanbul for a few days but had to fly back to Iran, send their passports back to Armenia and wait to get a corrected version. They were eventually able to come for an abbreviated visit, but "it was a shock to them," she said.

Shamsi had hoped to travel home this summer to see her 24-year-old brother because she could afford to take an extended time away while her visa was re-approved. That's unlikely now.

"We used to be together all the time," she said. "It's really difficult."

Some of her friends' parents who had hoped to attend their graduations at the UI have gotten emails from the U.S. government canceling their appointments, she said.

Shamsi's visa allows her to stay at the UI for a total of five years. But she's worried the travel ban will be extended more than 90 days, or made permanent.

If so, some students whose visas expire could be forced to leave the United States before they finish their doctoral work, said graduate student David Hanley, a member of the campus Senate Executive Committee.

'Heart-warming' support

"I understand Americans want their country to be safe. It's what everybody wants," Shamsi said. "Everybody's upset after any shooting or any terrorism to any race or any religion or people from any country.

"But I think those are individuals who do these crazy things," she said, not an entire religion or race or country.

For now, she's going to stay at the UI and hopes to finish her doctorate. But it depends on what happens over the next few months. If things get more unstable, or if she feels unwelcome, "I prefer to be at home," she said.

Her friends, adviser and others in her department have supportive, she said.

"That was really heart-warming," she said.

Shahoei is also thankful for the many messages of support she has received. But she's critical of legislators who have supported the ban.

She noted that none of the 19 people responsible for the 9/11 attacks came from the seven countries listed in the travel ban (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen).

"It's not based on any fact," she said.

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