One need only look at the protests taking place across America over the weekend to realize that there is much to dislike about President Trump’s recent executive order on immigration. From the fact that zero nationals of the countries named in the order have been responsible for terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens, to the specific exclusion of Muslim majority countries where Donald Trump has significant business ties, to the blocking of Iraqi translators who risked their lives to work with U.S. government forces during military operations in Iraq, to the abhorrent blanket ban on refugee resettlement, the order is not only illogical and potentially illegal, it is immoral.
The public critique of this order has rightfully focused its collective anger on the issues above, but I would like to take a moment to discuss something a little less obvious, but still significant: education.
Student visa holders, unlike diplomats, were not exempt from the ban. The effects of this omission were immediate and far-reaching. Students from the affected countries who happened to be abroad at the time of signing now find themselves barred from returning to the U.S. to continue their studies. Similarly, students from these countries currently in the United States now feel stranded, unable to leave the United States — even to return home to visit family — lest they be denied entry upon their return. One student likened this to being in a “stateless condition.”
Iranian students, in particular, are the most affected nationality due to their population and dispersion in the American education system. There are thousands of Iranian students currently studying in the United States. According to the Institute for International Education 2016 report fact sheet on Iran, there were 12,269 Iranian students studying in the United States, making them the 11th leading place of origin for foreign students studying abroad, and ahead of countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. They are also the only country targeted by the immigration ban to appear in the top 25 places of origin for foreign students. Given the value Iranian society places on educational achievement — higher education participation in Iran is on par with those of Western countries — it is no surprise that the vast majority of Iranian students, 77.7%, study at the graduate level.
The costs of losing these students are immense. Economically, Iranian students contributed an estimated $386 million to the U.S. economy from 2015-16. Culturally, the price is much higher. Numerous studies have shown the benefits from study abroad experiences. These include increased cultural tolerance, more constructive involvement in international relations, and even better cognitive function. The longer one spends abroad, the more lasting these effects are. It would not be a stretch to assume, then, that the Iranian students who return home after several years of a masters or PhD program in the United States do so with an enhanced appreciation for American culture and values.
This appreciation even extends to the upper reaches of Iranian government. When Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran in 2013, he selected several ministers with degrees from American universities. Notably, his cabinet contained more U.S. PhDs than that of Barack Obama’s, including degree holders from UC Berkeley, MIT, and my beloved Louisiana State University, among others. Rouhani himself received his PhD from the Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. This represents a stark change from the early days of the Islamic Republic, when its rulers frequently warned against the potentially devastating effects of “Westoxification” in Iranian society and government.
There is also a cost to future generations. If the ban extends into perpetuity, Iranians who wish to study abroad in the United States will find their dreams dashed. Those currently studying here will have to consider transferring lest, as previously mentioned, they concede to forgo any trips abroad during the duration of their studies. As Iranian society withdraws from the United States, they will lose important primary knowledge of American culture and customs, and thus will be less capable of countering the anti-American sentiment pressed by hardline political factions at home. This loss will be particularly hard felt given the absence of any formal diplomatic ties between the two nations.
The targeting of Iran will also add to the sense of unjust victimization and collective punishment Iranians feel they have suffered at the hands of the United States throughout their recent history. In addition to the orchestration of the 1953 coup d’etat that ousted prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, Iranians bitterly recall the United States’ support for Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq War (visually immortalized in the famous handshake between Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein), the downing of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. naval ship in 1988, and the numerous hardships caused by harsh economic sanctions against their country.
It remains to be seen what the ultimate duration, effects, and potential fallout from this order will be, but as of now one thing is clear: with a stroke of his pen, Donald Trump has severed the longest, most fruitful, and, indeed, only remaining line of communication between Iran and the United States.