What was intended to be a collaboration between two internationally renowned universities quickly deteriorated into a situation of shock and distress that filled the lives Muslim citizens across the globe.
When President Donald Trump signed the contentious executive order that forbade the entry of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, members from both sides of the aisle erupted in protest. Talking heads flooded news programs to debate the legality and morality of the order. It became a discussion of presidential power and policy, rather than individual human impact.
But in the middle of all the hysteria, confusion and protests that filled the country after the executive order, there is a person.
And his name is Amir.
‘I Was Really Scared’
Amir, who declined to have his last name published, was en route to John F. Kennedy airport on the evening of Jan. 27, planning to visit Cornell in a joint research program from Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden.
At first, the cross-Atlantic travel was business as usual for the 28-year-old Iranian citizen.
But while Amir was in the air, President Trump signed the executive order that put a travel freeze on citizens from seven Muslim-majority, Iran included. Amir had no idea.
His plane landed at JFK around 8:30 p.m., and it was not Amir’s first time coming to the U.S. He had previously attended conferences and visited his maternal aunt living in the Washington, D.C. area — only a short distance from where the order banning his entry was signed.
But when he exited the plane this time around, things were not the same. President Trump’s order barred him from entering the U.S., and Amir had to decide whether to be deported — which would prevent him from trying to re-enter the country for five years — or sign visa withdrawal papers.
“The thing that really surprised me was that when I got on the plane in Stockholm, I was legal — I was a legal student,” Amir recounted in a Skype interview on Feb 2. “And when I got off the plane [at JFK] I was illegal.”
After customs took him aside shortly following his flight, he said he was thrown into a room with a slew of people in similar situations, clueless as to the reason why. He did not learn what was going on until seven hours later.
“[The officers] had no idea exactly what this executive order [was],” he explained. “It was chaotic.”
At approximately 1 a.m. on Jan. 28, Amir said he was handcuffed and transported from Terminal Four at JFK to Terminal One. The officers took him on a route that limited exposure to the protests outside.
Amir had never been handcuffed before, let alone seen any other form of detention. A majority of his adult life has been devoted to his studies: he completed his undergraduate studies in his home country of Iran, along with a Masters at Chalmers and is currently enrolled in a Chalmers Ph.D. program.
“In the beginning I was scared,” he said. “I was really scared when they handcuffed me [walking] to the building. I have never had [experienced hostility at an airport]. [Being] handcuffed for the first time surprised me.”
But despite the tense emotions, Amir made clear that he was treated well by the just-as-confused Customs and Border Protection officers.
“They were warm people and sometimes joked with me,” he said. “They were nice people. For example, one of them told me that I wish you luck.”
“They all did it because it was a law and they should do it. They were working there,” he continued.
Upon arrival at Terminal One, he entered a room with other middle-eastern nationals in the same situation. Then, silence; he was not allowed to speak with the other gentlemen to try and make sense of the chaotic sequence of the past three hours.
At 4 a.m., he finally got his explanation.
He was told about how earlier in the day the President signed an order that forbids customs from allowing him — and citizens of six other countries — into the U.S.
Facing potential deportation, he ultimately decided to sign the withdrawal papers and sat in that room for nearly 12 additional hours “staring at a clock” until he was put on a flight back to Europe.
For Amir, the months-long process to legally acquire a visa had been for nothing. He was travelling to Cornell in order to represent Chalmers in an academic partnership, but President Trump’s signature brought it to a swift end.
At the bleakest of moments, when Amir accepted that he was not going to be able to conduct research at Cornell, he heard some intriguing news. A Seattle-based federal judge, James Robart, put a temporary block on President Trump’s order and potentially opened the door for citizens of the seven singled-out countries to enter the U.S.
However, Amir does not explicitly identify as Muslim, and the ban’s largest critique has been its targeting of Muslims. So why couldn’t a religiously independent student enter? Why not him?
“What hurt me was not if you were Muslim or not Muslim. What hurt me was that why your birthplace matters,” he said. “I lived in Sweden for six years, I have been in the U.S. before, I already had security check many times. Why [does] just the place you’re born [have] more affect on your life? This was something that hurt.”
“I was more famous in customs as a student [than an Iranian],” he added. “They were almost [saying], ‘What happened to that student from Sweden?’ There was not even talk about Iran, I was a student from Sweden. That’s it.”
With the judge’s block, Amir still had no idea what was in store for him. His correspondence with his Ph.D. supervisor led him to contact New York Civil Liberties Attorney Jordan Wells ’07, who would serve as a liaison between Amir and JFK/customs.
A glimmer of hope for Amir and Wells popped up when Judge Robart put the block on the executive order. Customs told Amir that if he could get to the U.S. border, they might be able to reinstate his visa, but there was no guarantee.
Regardless of his past internal toils, Amir wanted to take the chance.
At first glance, those around him were wary about the entire situation. Why would someone be so eager to head back to a country that had rejected him just days before?
“I had my studies here,” he said. “And I didn’t have that feeling about it. I wanted to try again.”
So Amir made his way to the Göteborg airport on Feb. 5 with a flight scheduled for Amsterdam without knowing if he would ever acquire the boarding pass for JFK — that flight was still on ice. When he landed in Amsterdam, he got on the phone with JFK to ensure customs would still accept him. Luckily for him, they would.
“I didn’t unpack because I thought that something would be changed,” he said.
Perhaps the most harrowing component of Amir’s decision to try and return to the U.S. without any assured entrance was the fact that he only told a single person of his plans. Not a parent, not a sibling — a close colleague of several years.
Amir and his already-packed bags made the trip that was all too similar, but his second attempt proved to be the most fruitful: he finally made it to the U.S.
“Now we can get started and work,” an eager Amir said once he arrived in Ithaca.
Big Red Response
When Amir’s travel plans initially came to an end, it cut short an occasion that was meant to advance research between the universities that, for the most part, had been conducted electronically.
As of the 2016-17 school year, Cornell’s population consists of 29 students and 20 faculty members whose citizenship lies within one of the seven countries that the executive order excludes from entering the U.S.
Though Amir is not a student of Cornell, preventing him from entering the country highlighted what has become a major concern of the executive order. President Trump’s hopes in signing the order was to prevent the spread of terrorism within the border, but if Amir’s case is any example, its implications have extended beyond that: stunting academic research and collaboration between the United States and citizens of the countries affected.
On Feb. 3, Harvard — along with seven other Massachusetts-based universities — filed an amicus brief that challenged President Trump and his executive order for “stifling the free flow of ideas and people that are critical to progress in a democratic society.”
When asked before Amir’s arrival if Cornell would join a fellow Ivy and support and the brief, the University declined to comment, but kept the door open for future filings.
If eventually signed, a brief would follow suit with some of the dissents the University has already voiced about the order. Days following Amir’s first attempt to enter the country, Cornell Interim President Hunter Rawlings issued a statement saying the University would “provide legal assistance to undocumented Cornell students who may wish to consult with a lawyer about the implications of the federal administration’s policies for their immigration status.”
Since he is not a student of Cornell, it was unclear if Amir would have been privy to the same privileges. Yet Brendan O’Brien — Director of the International Students & Scholars Office — said the University was doing all it can to provide assistance to the affected individuals.
At the current moment, O’Brien is not aware of any more Cornellians who may be affected by the ban, but if the mumblings of the brief are any indication, the University is prepared to adjust to what has already been volatile legislation.
Outside of the emotional and political implications of the executive order, O’Brien was highly critical of the impacts he says it had — and potentially still could have — on the University.
“I think it’s a shame that not all of America would have a chance to hear from these students and scholars directly.” he said. “I think Cornell is a much better place for having them here.”
As a University that has consistently prided itself on its worldwide presence, O’Brien says that its efforts to keep researchers like Amir as a presence around Cornell will not be diminished by the order.
In the week following President Trump’s decree, the ISSO has held numerous advice sessions where students from the impacted countries who were already on campus had the opportunity to meet with immigration lawyers for legal counsel and to discuss what might be the ban’s fallout.
“We wanted … all international students to recognize great contributions that international students make to the campus and to emphasize to everyone that international students are very very welcome to Cornell,” O’Brien explained.
That was accomplished with Amir. Immediately following the initial failed entrance to the country, Amir said O’Brien was in contact with him, and a room at the Cornell Club New York, as well as a paid-for campus-to-campus ticket, was waiting for him at JFK.
But obviously, Cornell itself does not solely possess the power to overturn a legal action such as an executive order. However, O’Brien said that “Cornell is going to do what it can on a national scale to provide more opportunities for exchange.”
Part of this action has included close contact and collaboration with Congressman Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), according to O’Brien. Despite Reed’s support for President Trump during the election, O’Brien said “[his office] would be willing to help individual people who are impacted by the executive order.”
“Immediately after the executive order, the graduate school worked closely with senior leadership with the University,” said Jason Kahabka, associate dean of administration. “I can tell you we have been engaged in the international community.”
While it is unclear what the future holds for Cornell’s involvement with researchers, scholars and students from the impacted countries will be, one thing is undoubtedly clear: the University will do all in its power to keep the open exchange of students, and ideas, alive.
“One of the reasons why Cornell is such a special place is that people who have great skills and talents can come together in one place, and I hope that can continue,” O’Brien said before the ban was blocked. “For me personally, having the chance to interact with people from those countries definitely enriches my life and enriches the whole campus. These people have had security checks done on them. They have been checked out and I don’t think they are a threat to the US — they make a great contribution to the U.S.”
Amir is living proof of that exchange.