Resisting Racism: Addressing Trump’s Immigration Ban One College at a Time



Despite moments of chaos and uncertainty for some following President Trump’s immigration executive order, otherwise known as the “Muslim ban,” university and college presidents across the U.S. took stands ensuring safety for their students and made promises to continue to promote diversity.

In a letter to students, faculty, alumni and parents addressing the ban, President Botstein of Bard College wrote, “Bard must sustain its commitment to the principle of non-discrimination by reason of race, religion, or national identity. Bard is part of an international community of students and scholars and it will hold fast to attracting and retaining students, faculty, and staff from all over the world.”


In addition, a follow-up letter from the Bard Office of International Scholar and Student Services heavily cautioned international students, especially those from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Libya to refrain from traveling outside of the United States because of concerns about re-entry.  

Other college presidents have responded similarly, condemning the ban and warning against travel for international students, so that they can continue their studies within the U.S. In a letter to students and faculty, the president of New York University, Andrew Hamilton, wrote that the university would continue to process applications of prospective students from the seven Muslim-majority countries. Like Botstein, Hamilton added that he himself was also once an immigrant to this country, and former green-card holder. “I know how important it is to be able to move across borders in peaceful pursuit of one’s scholarship,” he wrote.

“We must not and will not conflate people of a venerable faith with people predisposed to acts of terrorism and violence,” wrote Drew Faust, the president of Harvard University, in a message to her student body. The university also pledged to go forward with its decision to hire its first Muslim chaplain, and to increase protection for Muslim and undocumented students.

Religious leaders around the world have come together to condemn President Trump’s executive order, including the leaders of religiously-affiliated colleges, such as Regis University in Denver, Colorado. President and Reverend John P. Fitzgibbons, in a statement to the Regis community, said, “Catholic social teaching tells us that it is our “duty to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the dignity and rights of the human person.”

However, the Reverend also expressed concern about Regis students petitioning to declare the campus a sanctuary, as have Bard students. “The label ‘sanctuary campus’ does not have a legal or standard definition, but there are indications that the Federal government might seek to punish ‘sanctuary campuses’ by withholding federal funding that a large majority of our students rely upon, and without which Regis could not survive,” Fitzgibbons said.

This fear of punishment by the Trump administration is not baseless. President Trump has recently threatened to cut federal funding from U.C. Berkeley, after riots broke out against the immigration ban and the university cancelled far-right Trump-supporter Milo Yiannopoulos, the Editor of Breitbart. President Trump’s comments also came after the president and chancellor of U.C. Berkeley, Nicholas Dirks, called for an end to the ban as soon as possible. The cancellation of the conservative speaker is controversial, especially for a place like U.C. Berkeley, the birthplace of the nation’s Free Speech Movement, and Trump flew to his keyboard.


Other university presidents have chosen to address President Trump directly. In a letter to the POTUS, Robert J. Zimmer, of the University of Chicago, urged President Trump to reconsider the ways in which he has handled protecting the nation’s borders, approaching the issue somewhat differently from the other university presidents, and emphasized the U.S. as an attraction for international talent. The theme of opening the nation’s borders to students from the banned countries for research purposes was transparent when Zimmer wrote, “The history of scientific and technological advances…as well as the position of the country as the greatest magnet for talented people from around the world, has depended upon this welcoming stance. A failure to maintain this position will ultimately weaken the nation’s world-leading higher education institutions, diminish the innovation energy in the country, slow the pace of technology development, and ultimately weaken the nation.”

President Carolyn Martin of Amherst College conveyed a similar attitude towards the status of student immigrants and refugees at her college. “The College states in unequivocal terms that the executive order flouts the principles and values on which higher education and Amherst College depend. It is discriminatory and damaging to those who are directly and indirectly affected, and it is harmful to a society whose strength relies on the talent and hard work of immigrants from all over the world,” she wrote.

The presidents of The University of Chicago and Amherst College brought to light the obvious flaws of the immigration order, yet wrote about student immigrants and refugees strictly as if they were research assets to their institutions and therefore should be granted entry. Both letters failed to sympathize with the barred students as humans and sent the message that their institutions needed them because of their “talent.”

National, Religious, and racial diversity in schools inarguably creates a dynamic learning environment, great research opportunities, and a hub for student talent and is definitely something that should be valued by university presidents. However, it should not be the main message of a letter condemning an immigration ban that endangers scared, targeted student immigrants and refugees. (The University of Chicago is committed to excellence in education above anything else, regardless of the comfort level of its students, which similarly led the school to issue a letter in the fall of 2016 to its freshman class that explained its decision to ban safe spaces, “trigger warnings” and its support of controversial visiting speakers.)

Sixty-two institutions comprising of the Association of American Universities released a statement on January 28th calling for government officials to end the travel ban “as quickly as possible.” On February 3rd, a federal judge in Seattle blocked the ban’s enforcement nation-wide, allowing those from the seven targeted countries entry into the United States.

Just hours ago today, February 6, the Justice Department urged a federal appeals court to restore President Trump’s travel ban, believing “immediate action was needed to ensure the nation’s safety.” The court has designated an hourlong “oral argument” in the case for Tuesday, February 7. This decision reignites anxieties and uncertainties over the future of immigrants in the U.S., however, the prompt and substantial opposition by so many college presidents suggests that even if President Trump is willing to sacrifice the lengthy history of contributions made to this country by immigrants, many American educators are not.  


Photo by Gus Aronson/ Bard Watch.

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