Trump Administration Abruptly Cancels Visas of Elite Iranian Grad Students

Students, many headed for the University of California system, were sent home without warning

At least a dozen Iranian students who were set to begin engineering and computer science graduate programs in the U.S.—mostly within the University of California system—had their student visas revoked at the last minute, and without explanation, earlier this month.

As The New York Times reports, the scholars, who had been accepted to such prestigious programs as electrical engineering at U.C. San Diego and computer engineering at U.C. Davis, had their visas pulled without warning. Most were prevented from boarding flights to the U.S. from Iran, while some were stopped at connecting flights in the Persian Gulf. One student made it as far as Boston Logan International Airport before being sent back.

It’s unclear what triggered these sudden visa revocations, as the September 14 Iranian attack on Saudi oil fields occurred after the students were turned away. The State Department says there’s been no change in its student visa policy, and some university officials say there’s always issues with the hundreds of thousands of students who apply to study here each year, but many experts aren’t buying it.

Although a 2012 law passed by the Obama administration can deny visas to Iranian students whose U.S. education could lead them to work in the fields of energy or nuclear science back home, critics say that still doesn’t explain the last-second rejection of this current batch of students.

Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Washington think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, pointed to the difficulty in predicting how students would use the widely sought technical knowledge they acquire here. Rather than banishing prospective scientists outright, however, he suggested that Iranian students involved in sensitive research be required to stay in the United States after graduation.

Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said new vetting procedures largely overseen by Customs and Border Protection—especially the reviewing of visa applicants’ social media presence—are part of the problem, describing them as “a black box.”

The students say they’ve been put in a desperate position. Some have left lucrative jobs, sold their homes, or have rejected opportunities in Europe or Canada for opportunities here. They’ve also had to pay their own way to American embassies in Turkey and Armenia for visa interviews.

“I feel I’m damaged emotionally, financially, academically,” a student who identified himself only as “Peyman” told the Times. He was set to begin studying electrical engineering at U.C. San Diego this semester. When he tried to board a flight here from Qatar this month, an airline employee scrawled “CANCELLED” on his visa.

U.C. Board of Regents chairman John A. Perez said the university would support its international recruits, “no matter where they were born—and protect them in any way we can from the unpredictable actions of this administration.”

Arizona State University president Michael M. Crow specifically took Customs and Border Protection to task. “They are unevenly and inappropriately making determinations that have no factual basis and that they have no experience making,” he said. “If C.B.P. and D.H.S. do not take this problem seriously, all universities need to seek review by Congress and the courts.”

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