For area colleges, a travel ban hits home

Schools in county see chilling effect on international students and faculty

BRATTLEBORO — With Windham County having a relatively low immigrant population, one might wonder: Does the Trump administration's travel ban and increased immigration enforcement affect this area? If so, how?

One place to look is at higher education.

The School for International Training in Brattleboro is an obvious choice. The graduate school's mission is to “[prepare] students to be interculturally effective leaders, professionals, and citizens,” and sends undergraduate and graduate students on field-based academic study abroad programs.

True to its mission, SIT brings in professors and students from countries other than the U.S. Earlier this year, SIT introduced its Global Scholars Program, which offers full tuition to refugee students studying in its five graduate programs - including students coming from some of the nations the president placed on a travel ban.

Although Marlboro College isn't officially an international school, it collaborates with SIT to offer an undergraduate World Studies Program, counts numerous international students among its alumni, and every year hosts a Fulbright Arabic Language Fellow, an Oxford Classics Fellow, and other visiting professors from other nations.

When asked if the current administration's immigration policies - ostensibly aimed at preventing terrorism - have affected his campus, Marlboro President Kevin Quigley assured The Commons they have.

“Psychologically, it's having an impact on us,” Quigley said. “It's a climate of worry and fear,” he added.

This fall Marlboro will have five international students, and in recent years their range has been between three and five.

“That sounds small,” said Quigley, “but five students is 2 1/2 percent of our [enrollment].”

One word: chaos

SIT President Sophia Howlett described the effect of the travel ban on SIT and other institutes of higher education in one word: chaos.

Because the policy is new - and keeps changing as the travel ban winds it way through the federal courts - school administrators have to scramble to not only keep up with the day's immigration edicts, but to make plans to keep their affected students and faculty safe once they arrive.

“We now have to have procedures in place when students have complicated visas,” Quigley said. “We have to meet them at the airport, and help them get here. We have to anticipate the unexpected - that international students and faculty are going to run into some sort of conflict as they cross a border,” he said.

When Marlboro representatives meet international students and faculty at airports, “we have the number on hand of someone who can connect them to [immigration] lawyers, in case they are detained,” said Quigley, who added, “We have a support system in place. We need to think about the possibility that our visitor may be detained.

“This year's Arab Fellow, from a country initially on the travel ban, is apparently having difficulty getting a visa,” Quigley said. “Perhaps, that will work out. However, the fact that a Fellow vetted by Fulbright is having difficulty getting a visa suggests the chilling effect of the more restrictive policies for international faculty and students.”

This year, SIT has five Global Scholars. Some of next year's participants are already in the country, and others are not, said Howlett.

What they all have in common, she said, is, “these are people who are looking to get on with their lives. They want to make change in their country, or other places where refugees are settled.”

A contingent from the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges recently traveled to Washington, D.C., and spoke to the state's Congressional delegation “to make them aware of our issues,” said Howlett, who has also spoken directly with the delegation.

Support systems

SIT officials developed support systems for international students, including reminding them to arrange for identification documents for domestic travel.

“We made sure [students] can legally move around. They just can't get on a plane and go overseas,” Howlett said.

Howlett said school administrators also worked to protect international students.

“We sat down with the students and said, 'We won't share your information'” with federal immigration agencies, she said. Quigley also told The Commons that he and his staff won't share students' information “without a court order,” and without consulting an attorney.

In March, SIT collaborated with The Women's Freedom Center and the Vermont Law School's legal clinic team to host a talk with Arthur C. Edersheim, staff attorney for South Royalton Legal Clinic, on immigration and the travel ban.

Edersheim shared details on the most up-to-date (at the time) laws on immigration enforcement, which agencies do what, and how the state legislature is handling this.

He didn't have good news.

“Many more folks are going to be detained,” Edersheim said, adding that since Trump took office, “executive orders are flying around everywhere,” and many people - especially immigrants and those who assist them - are “feeling overwhelmed.”

Howlett noted the travel ban has had “a personal impact” on some SIT students, but the effects “may be felt more broadly” around the country, especially as the new school year approaches.

She described the concept of “melting,” which is when international students, who are accepted into school and plan to come to the U.S. to study, “melt away because of extreme [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] vetting.”

Howlett said recent surveys among colleges and universities showed decreased interest from international students in studying in the U.S. “And it's across the board, not just Muslim” students from the nations affected by the travel bans, she said.

Quigley agreed. “There's this general worry in higher education about what's going on” politically in this country, he said, adding the “worldwide perception” is that “international students are looking critically [at] coming to school in the United States.”

Feeling unwelcome

This travel ban “is having a chilling effect on how [the U.S.] is perceived as the premier educational destination in the world,” he said.

“People don't want to come somewhere they'll feel unwelcome,” said Howlett, who mentioned “the attacks here on Sikhs and Hindus because people don't know the difference between them and Muslims. [Potential international students] perceive the racism and xenophobia [here]. They hear Trump saying, 'People come here from other countries and take your jobs.'”

Howlett said this isn't the first time SIT - and the rest of the country - missed out on opportunities to attract international students to its schools.

“After 9/11, when the U.S. last tightened visas, it became more restrictive and there were more deportations. The result was, the U.S. lost a large number of international students,” Howlett said.

“And, Australia and Britain picked them up,” she added.

Howlett portrayed this loss as financial as well as ethical.

Nearly 60 percent of SIT's graduate students live off campus. “That means approximately 40-60 local rental units are occupied by SIT students at any given time. We estimate that students living off campus spend approximately $1,000 per month for rent, food, transportation, entertainment, and other goods and services,” according to information supplied by school officials.

“You're throwing away a particular revenue stream. International students are bringing in an educated workforce,” Howlett said.

Figures supplied by the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers say more than 1,043,839 international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $32.8 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2015-2016 academic year, and 54 percent of jobs created within the higher education sector were attributable to international students.

“We need people to stay here [in Windham County] and develop jobs for people with” a variety of education levels, Howlett said.

The good news, Howlett said, is that “U.S. students really want to know what's going on with the rest of the world” - at least if SIT's undergraduate study-abroad programs are any indication.

Enrollment, she said, is up 11 percent from last year. “Anecdotally, the students have challenged themselves to go abroad. It's a backlash against Trump,” she said.

But not for all study-abroad students.

Howlett said, “there's already been a small impact” on enrollment among dual citizens and “dreamers” - people illegally residing in the U.S. who came here as children, and who are obtaining legal residency through the DREAM Act (an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors).

“We called to check in on them” after they had been accepted to the study abroad program, “and they backed out, even though they are not from the nations affected by the travel bans. They were legal and had passports, but they still felt uncomfortable,” Howlett said.

Pushing for diversity

Kate Casa, SIT's editorial manager, said school administrators have “worked really hard to diversify” the study abroad students, including working with historically black and Hispanic colleges and universities, and are more likely to award scholarships to “dreamers.”

But the travel ban and increase in ICE activity created a “definite chilling effect” on the study abroad program, Casa said.

At Marlboro's Graduate Center, the summer MA in TESOL programs - providing Masters of Arts in teaching English to speakers of other languages - have traditionally had a “significant percentage of students come from the Middle East,” Quigley said.

“This year,” he said, “not one student is coming from the Middle East."

Quigley is also worried about the Fulbright Fellow, who comes to Marlboro College to teach Arabic to undergraduate students. “Can we recruit [them]? This year, our Fellow is from Iraq, which was taken off the second travel ban list,” Quigley said. But what about future Fellows?

When asked if any of SIT's faculty have been harmed by the travel ban, Howlett said, “luckily, not.”

But, she added, “there have been issues with NGO leaders” working with World Learning, SIT's corporate parent. “We're checking in with them” to make sure they are safe, she said.

Quigley talked about a “shifting landscape” across the country, in higher education and beyond, where “we live in a culture of fear and uncertainty."

Howlett noted the irony of what could help the culture heal: bringing in people with different backgrounds.

“Internationalization is important because we're tunnel-visioned,” Howlett said.

“We know what we're used to. But, without knowing how others do things, we can't break out,” she said. “This is an opportune moment to do things differently, in spite of the crap political climate.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates