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Feb. 14, 2017

Letter of (No) Intent

Students affected by the EO affirm the University needs to do more than send letters.

The current political climate in the United States has been shaky in its leadership and has upset people worldwide, and President Donald Trump’s radical executive order on immigration has put lives at risk. Many individuals in the University community have been distressed by this policy, and students and faculty alike have expressed how their personal and academic lives have been put through turmoil. While the University community has been incredibly supportive of the troubled University population, the administration itself has done little to show that it will actually protect the safety of their students if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers were to show up to campus. UChicago students have protested on campus, downtown, and at O’Hare Airport to show their support for Muslims. Individual academic departments have also shown their support: the Centers for the Study of Gender and Sexuality/Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC-CSGS) have offered discussions for UChicago students affected by the executive order. However, the University leadership has been lukewarm at best in its support for members of the University community. The University cannot be neutral in this case and hide behind the Kalven Report to shirk responsibility. In this case, neutrality will not protect student interests, and the administration needs to take bold and decisive action instead of sending out letters that are little more than a token gesture of support. 

Students at the University have not only had their personal lives jeopardized, but also their academic work. “I was planning on traveling to the U.K., South Africa, Kenya, and Pakistan for research within the next two years, and I don’t want to risk it now because I may not be allowed back into the country, even though Pakistan is not on the list of countries targeted by the EO,” Usama Rafi, a history graduate student, said. Shaahin Pishbin, a dual British-Iranian national, does not believe that he will be directly affected by the ban for now, but he still raises several concerns about his future. “This uncertainty facing my friends, colleagues, family and myself is, to put it mildly, not particularly conducive to a stable and optimistic outlook for my future here as a graduate student and beyond. I am only in the first year of my Ph.D.; moving to America to pursue my academic ambitions was a difficult decision for me.... Were I facing that decision this year, it would have been a much harder one to make,” he said.

Affected students have found some solace in the support of their classmates and faculty. Students participated in larger demonstrations against the order, gathering at O’Hare to show solidarity. Pishbin, a graduate student in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, spoke about how the protests have given him hope in a bleak time: “If there had been silence following the ban, I’d be a thousand times more anxious about my future in this country than I am now.” 

Alex Shams, an anthropology graduate student at the University, added that the protests brought visibility. Considering that some Muslims detained at airports know little English, the sheer presence of protesters makes a powerful impact. “It makes a statement to the people in Homeland Security that there’s an immense public opposition to the ban,” Shams said. “I think it’s very meaningful...it’s a way to show visually that we’re willing to fight back.” 

The University faculty has also worked as hard as possible to accommodate students affected here on campus. CSRPC-CSGS hosted a discussion-based seminar focused on providing students with reassurance and information. “Hearing the testimonies of individuals affected by the ban empowers us all in the struggle against it, and knowing that our stories are being listened to and acted upon by our peers is heartening,” Pishbin said. 

These actions stand in stark contrast to the University’s reaction to the ban. President Zimmer and Provost Diermeier’s letter to the White House, albeit well-intended, was ineffective and lacked conviction. The letter chose to ignore the awful implications of Trump’s policy, and instead emphasized the loss of talent the nation would suffer without immigrants coming to the United States. Not only that, but it also sympathizes with Trump’s “concerns,” by saying that they understand the “motivation for recent actions concerning immigration” and concedes that Muslim countries have “been a concern for national security.” By writing that Muslim countries bring the “threat of terrorism,” the administration validates the harmful stereotypes that continue to portray Muslims as dangerous individuals. 

While affected students appreciate the University’s show of support, they also wish it went further. Saying that the order will “weaken the nation’s world-leading higher education institutions” values institutional goals over the well-being of human beings, and fails to show a commitment to taking bolder action to protect students.

“I think the University has not taken a proactive role in assuring students who are directly affected by the ban…. They didn’t know who was impacted by the event even though there was a Ph.D. student who could not come back,” Shams said. “Writing a letter to Trump...I don’t know what that does, particularly when that letter does not take a strong stand against Trump’s policies.” 

“Not only this, but in the past, I have had meeting after meeting with the administration to recognize Islamophobia, but the administration ignores this issue, and the climate survey does not recognize this in any way,” he continues. “I think the University needs to think ahead...the University needs to be more proactive. [The travel ban] is going to have serious, grave consequences on the students, and the University has a responsibility to protect its community. I commend them for what they have done, but they need to be going further.” 

It is imperative for the people of this country to not only recognize the bigotry of the Trump administration, but to actively and visibly confront the issues that our nation and the world will face. During such a time of discord, resistance is necessary and, frankly, vital to the oppressed and marginalized. Resistance does not mean writing statuses, op-eds, or even letters to the president on their behalf. Rather, it means taking the time to listen to those actually affected by the ban in order to understand what concerns to address. It is time for the University administration to stop taking the easy road of neutrality and to protect and commit to its own community members. In the following uncertain weeks, we all—students, faculty, and the administration—need to work together to resist the Trump administration. In this tumultuous time, the University administration must explicitly choose who it will side with; this decision will be remembered for decades to come. 

Soulet Ali is a first-year in the College.

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