July 23, 2017

Webster urges international students, staff not to travel abroad during ban

Webster University is offering advice and support to students affected by President Donald Trump’s recent executive order on immigration and international travel.

Trump signed an executive order Jan. 27 that issued a travel ban, disallowing anyone from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Anyone with passports from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq or Sudan are banned from traveling to the U.S. for 90 days. According to The New York Times, Trump’s administration has clarified that individuals with green cards are exempt, but some have still been detained by border agents.

Webster University President Elizabeth Stroble and Provost Julian Schuster released a statement the following day acknowledging the ban, saying Webster is closely monitoring the situation and acknowledges the problems it raises for the international scholarly community. “We understand this raises anxieties because of the rapid shift in U.S. policies in the past few days and because the order’s full ramifications are still unknown,” the statement said.

Because Webster is a global campus, those unknowns raise concerns, as reflected in the statement. A Jan. 29 article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named Webster as one of the first institutions to issue a statement on the ban and said at least five Webster students would be affected. Associate Director of Public Relations Jennifer Starkey confirmed this number on the home campus.

“From those countries [named in the travel ban], we have five students [on the home campus] and that’s out of roughly 225 international students on student visas here in St. Louis,” Starkey said.

Starkey said that number strictly referred to student visas and there might be other students here on work visas. At Webster’s domestic campuses, she said there are seven total students who are affected by the travel ban. That number includes the five students from the home campus.

In order to address concerns in person, Webster held a town hall meeting Feb. 3. Stroble, Schuster, a panel of experts and Webster staff members spoke at the event. The panel took questions from an audience consisting of students and staff as well as questions sent in from current and former students.

Schuster said if one Webster community member is affected, the whole Webster community is affected and this is not the only meeting that will be held.

“Regardless of the standpoints from which we come, regardless of the countries from which we come, regardless of where we live, we are all part of Webster University and part of the Webster family and we will stand for each other, and we will support each other, and we will help each other,” Schuster said.

A submitted question asked whether a student from one of the banned countries should travel if they had legal status but an expired visa. Attorney Megan Gurley Keeney said this means if that student were to leave the U.S., they would have to go to an American embassy and re-apply for a visa to get back into the country.

“I would recommend that you not travel right now,” Keeney said.

Associate Director of International Recruitment and Services Blerina Polovina added that if a student was considering travelling, they should consult an immigration lawyer prior to doing so. In another submitted question, a student asked if they should avoid travelling home to their predominantly-Muslim country that was not on the list.

Attorney Arindam Kar said with all of the unknowns at this time, he advises against it. If a student has a green card, they technically can still enter the U.S., but Kar and Keeney still suggest no one risk it. Keller and Polovina said their doors are always open to anyone with questions or concerns and Keller said she has sent out emails to the five homecampus students affected by the ban.

Polovina said they have reports that could confirm the five students’ home countries, but it is up to any student with concerns to reach out to her or Keller.

“We cannot just identify somebody [and] what their religion is by just their name,” Polovina said. “It’s up to them. The resources are available, we are available for them to talk to us and I hope this is an opportunity [and] they know that the door is open.”

Keller said an email was sent out to international students regarding travel safety. Chief Communications Officer Rick Rockwell, who moderated the town hall, said that an additional follow-up email had been sent out the night before the meeting. Kar said on a student level, anyone who knows a Muslim student should reach out and let them know they are not alone and that it “goes a long way.”

In wrapping up the meeting, Schuster said that he himself was once an immigrant and that nobody needed a visa to come to his house.

“To come to my home, you don’t need a visa. Please do come to my home, and we will share a cup of tea and we will talk to each other and we will support each other,” Schuster said.

Phrasing controversy

Webster is one of four St. Louis colleges that released a statement regarding President Trump’s executive order. Saint Louis University, Washington University and Maryville University all said, with varying verbiage, they welcome all of their students and want them to feel safe on campus.

Webster’s statement has similar language, but political science professor Dan Hellinger objects to one word of the final sentence. That line reads, “…the university supports and complies with all applicable immigration laws.”

“I thought it [the statement] didn’t go far enough,” Hellinger said. “I’m particularly concerned about the last line where the president [Stroble] actually said that we ‘support and comply’ — why support?”

Schuster said that was not the intended meaning of “supports.”

“We did not say we support the executive order,” Schuster said. “An executive order is not the law.”

Schuster said the phrasing is not as important as the concrete support Webster is offering to students affected.

“If there is a house burning, then what is important is to go and to see [if you can] help somebody in the house and to get him or her out of the danger,” Schuster said. “It’s much more important than saying ‘I am against arson.’ We are all against arson. And as I said, we are unequivocally stating that we support free movement of the people, ideas, knowledge throughout the borders.”

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