For many people in Wyoming, President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting travel might seem a distant piece of policy from the state’s largely homogenous population.
But for several students at the University of Wyoming, the order could have very real consequences.
Pourya Nikoueeyan came to UW from Iran in 2011 as a graduate student. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate studying mechanical engineering.
Most of Nikoueeyan’s days are spent in the UW wind tunnel research facility in West Laramie where his focus is largely on green energy research, but he is also working on optimizing Blackhawk helicopter blades.
Though Nikoueeyan’s days in the lab often stretch more than eight hours, he said his routine was disrupted when Trump’s first executive order restricting travel — commonly referred to as a travel ban — went into effect in January. Nikoueeyan said he and many of his fellow international students at UW were disturbed by what the order could mean.
“Right after the first one, for one week, I was braindead,” Nikoueeyan said. “I could not do anything. I could not focus. I was thinking, ‘Next, they’ll say graduate students should go back to their country for awhile.’ I just couldn’t think, I couldn’t work and everyone was the same way. We didn’t know what to do.”
A federal court blocked that order, but a similar set of restrictions were scheduled to go into effect Thursday.
Trump’s first order banned immigration and travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, as well as reducing the number of refugees to be admitted into the U.S. It suspended the U.S. refugee program for 120 days and indefinitely barred refugees from Syria.
Language in the order allowed for review on a case-by-case basis for immigration. The first order also included language prioritizing Christian refugees, giving federal judges justification for finding the order unconstitutional on the basis of religious discrimination.
The second order was more tailored to the court’s criticisms. Iraq was excluded, reducing the number of restricted countries to six. Preference for Christians was taken out of the order completely.
The suspension on the refugee program included Syria in the 120 days, rather than an indefinite restriction.
It was made clear that lawful permanent residents and those with certain valid documents would not be barred from entry, something many said was not made clear in the first order. The issuance of waivers on a case-by-case basis was also widened. More guidance was also provided for how to handle those negatively affected by the first order.
However, just hours before the start date of the order that would deny entry to citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days, two different federal courts again stood in the way.
The feeling of relief Nikoueeyan experienced after the first ban washed over him again Thursday, he said.
“It shows how democracy works and how strong it is,” he said. “It shows people are smart and know what’s best for the country.”
But even with federal courts blocking Trump’s orders, Nikoueeyan said it’s impossible to predict how everything will turn out. While there are exceptions written in the order for college students and their parents, the confusion from the first travel ban’s rollout lead Nikoueeyan to think its possible agencies wouldn’t know how to interpret and enforce it. Ultimately, he said it’s difficult for people such as him to have any certainty.
“Right now, they’re saying it’s temporary, but who knows?” Nikoueeyan said. “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It makes you deeply concerned.”
After around five years in the U.S., Nikoueeyan said he’s come to think of it as a home away from home. Though he said it would be an honor to work in Iran someday, spending time in the U.S. is an opportunity he’s glad he seized.
“I know who Americans are,” he said. “I know how good they are, how hardworking they are, how smart they are, how welcoming they are. The U.S is not anymore just a country that I came to study and get a degree in — it is now my second home.”
Such restrictions on travel make him and others worry about a variety of things, Nikoueeyan said. For example, if a parent became deathly ill, he said some students are faced with a decision to go home to see a loved one before they pass away or before the student can finish their education, as they might not be permitted to re-enter the U.S. Nikoueeyan said it’s ultimately not the kind of country they thought the U.S. would be. Many international students come from countries with authoritarian leaders and governments, which stand in sharp contrast to how they perceived the U.S., he said.
“We couldn’t imagine that something like this would happen in the U.S.,” Nikoueeyan said. “It resonates with stuff we see in our own countries.”
After the first executive order restricting international travel, Nikoueeyan and some of his fellow students submitted a letter to UW President Laurie Nichols asking for her support. They also set up a table in the Wyoming Union to gather signatures from people on campus to accompany the letter. Nikoueeyan said he was happy to see lots of supporters sign it. He said the institutional support UW offered was also appreciated by international students.
“I am proud of the support we have been getting from people in Laramie,” he said. “The UW International Students and Scholars office staff has also supported us in the last few weeks.”
On Jan. 30, Nichols issued a statement affirming the institution’s support of its international students from the seven countries listed in the ban. Nichols says in an email that position is unchanged.
“My original statement still holds,” she says. “We will do all we can to assist our students and faculty who are impacted.”
UW is continuing efforts to increase enrollment, which includes international students. Sara Axelson, UW vice president for Student Affairs, says in an email the university values its international students and would continue to recruit more.
“UW is fully committed to recruiting and retaining international students, and we look forward to the growth of our international student and scholar population in years to come,” she says.
International students also contribute to the state’s revenue streams. The 2016 Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education found that 1,157 international students spent $22 million in Wyoming. The study’s scope included 947 students at UW. The top five countries of origin for international students in Wyoming do not include the six countries listed in the travel restrictions.
Axelson says she couldn’t speculate as to whether an executive order restricting international travel could have an effect on UW’s revenue streams.
“At this point in time it is hard to estimate revenue loss,” she says. “We will be observing the national conversations going forward to anticipate any potential impacts.”
Part of the federal judges’ reasoning for blocking the executive orders was because of Trump’s past statements about wanting to institute a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. — something they cite as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on religious discrimination. Nikoueeyan said he understands and supports the need for national security. However, he said he agrees with the judges’ interpretations.
“They think it’s still unconstitutional based on (Trump’s) own campaign promises,” he said. “If you just compare what he said to what he’s done, you would say this is definitely a Muslim ban.”
Nikoueeyan said he doesn’t think it’s just bad for immigrants, either. During the turmoil in Europe in the early 20th Century, he points out many immigrants that came to the U.S. made breakthrough scientific contributions, including the scientists who fled Germany that were critical to the Manhattan Project.
“It’s great that immigration has driven this country forward,” Nikoueeyan said. “This country absorbs the brightest minds from all over the world.”
Though he said he’s never experienced discrimination personally in Laramie, Nikoueeyan does see hateful speech on the internet. He said he thinks these people simply don’t or won’t understand world and U.S. history.
“When you say hateful stuff, it just shows how uninformed you are about the history of your own country,” Nikoueeyan said.
After growing up in Iran and spending several years in the U.S., Nikoueeyan said he’s learned that people are people. They want to celebrate holidays and see friends and family thrive, he said.
“People care about their children, they care about their parents, and everyone once in awhile, for Thanksgiving or Christmas or different occasions, they gather everyone and spend some time with each other,” Nikoueeyan said. “We do the exact same thing (in Iran).”
Prior to the possibility of travel restrictions being imposed, Nikoueeyan said his parents were able to visit on a few occasions. During one of those visits, he said he went with his mother to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. There, he said he was particularly struck by a wall that bears a famous quotation from Martin Niemöller, a German Protestant pastor who opposed the policies of Adolf Hitler, spending the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.
In summary, the quotation reflects Niemöller observation that he didn’t speak out when the Nazis came for socialists, trade unions and Jews before the German fascist regime ultimately came for him. Nikoueeyan said he thinks of that when he receives support from his American friends and supporters.
“Many of the people who came to sign our letter were international students not affected by (the travel restrictions),” he said. “I’ll never forget what one of them told me, ‘If I don’t sign this, it will be me who is next.’ It just struck me at that moment, it reminded me of the Holocaust Museum. We can stop immigration, but what does that mean?”