Last Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that banned travel into the United States by individuals from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days, and suspended the immigration of refugees into the United States for 120 days. In the wake of this policy, stories of individuals affected by the ban flooded in, and nationwide action and protest took place. Much remains to be seen for this order as policymakers question its legality, and the enforcement (or exceptions) behind it remain unclear and uncertain. The executive order has a particular impact on the education sector in our country. Professors, students, and researchers were detained and continue to be affected. We asked members of the Harvard Graduate School of Education community to weigh in on specific implications for the travel ban on education and institutions of higher ed, and to share their reflections and perspectives on this issue.
Five centuries ago, the house of Medici attracted to Florence intellects from many different cultural backgrounds and disciplinary fields. The work of Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelo, and Rafael, Michelangelo flourished as they converged in the city. This convergence stimulated creativity in science and in the arts, leading to the birth of the Italian Renaissance and of Humanism, which replaced the cultural decadence of the Middle Ages, with a new hope in reason, science, the humanities and the arts. This created the foundations for the Enlightenment. At the core of the Enlightenment is the powerful idea that humans can improve the world depending on reason and assisted by science. Democracy, public education, and the modern research university are products of the Enlightenment, and all share in their cosmopolitan aspirations and roots.
Creative insight in universities knows no passport, and is only accelerated by the convergence of scholars from different disciplines and cultural origins. Science is one of the most cosmopolitan activities in the world, and so is higher education more generally. It is for this reason that most universities embrace internationalism as part of their mission. It is central to the university’s DNA and core mission to advance knowledge, scientific understanding and the cultivation of human reason.
The president’s executive order that severely restricts immigration from seven Muslim nations on any visa category impedes the work of higher education in two ways. First, it limits the opportunity for faculty to engage with colleagues and students from these seven nations. Second, it signals that the government can at any time issue edicts of this sort, possibly expanding the list of nations. This puts any student or scholar on one of those visas, regardless of the country of which they are a citizen, on notice, causing them distress and perhaps to consider that their work would be best carried out in more welcoming settings. This would undermine the ability of universities to carry out their work of advancing knowledge and education.
In the 30 years I have worked at Harvard University, I have had the privilege to work with colleagues and students from many different nations, including those listed on the ban. From these collaborations has resulted an enhanced understanding of how to expand educational opportunities around the globe, the focus of my research and teaching.
I began my career as a professor in Venezuela, the country where I was born, arriving first to Harvard on a student visa, was then employed by Harvard on a special visa for scholars, then became a permanent resident, and eventually became a U.S. citizen. This is the trajectory of many of those who work in American universities. This executive order now impedes this trajectory for citizens from certain nations, and causes uncertainties for citizens of others. All of higher education is negatively impacted by this decision, and to those of us who believe in the power of human reason to improve the human condition, the arbitrary and unsubstantiated basis of the decision moves us away from the cosmopolitan aspirations of democracy and of the Enlightenment, back to an age of darkness.
Given the current political climate, particularly nationwide protests against the “Muslim ban” this past weekend, all school-age students, but especially Muslim students, must be feeling especially confused.
After all, this month’s activities for Black History Month will be a reminder of what children learn in school, that no one in America is supposed to be discriminated against based on race, religion, gender, or sexuality. For educators, explaining this sociopolitical moment presents a unique challenge of how to present political situations without too much bias.
While this is a reasonable concern when the issue is a contested issue such as the economic policy or the use of standardized testing, I contend that the debate of whether or not to create special policies that target only a certain group identified by their religion does not fall under the same category. We should not be teaching our children that discrimination is acceptable if certain conditions are met, such as this person is from X country.
To do this, we need only to return to the immigration policies of the later part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century to see many examples of such discrimination, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned a specific ethnic group or the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 that effectively banned East Asians and South Asians through national immigration quotas.
Fortunately, policies like these were abolished with the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act, which recognized the discriminatory nature of a system based on one’s national origin. And yet the recent executive order upends the lessons learned in the 1960s that discrimination, of any kind, runs counter to the ideals of liberty and democracy.
While I am certainly not arguing that we, as a nation, have achieved these aims, we do teach our youth that just because we haven’t achieved it doesn’t mean we stop trying. In order to alleviate our children’s anxieties about recent policies, we must teach (all of) them about our history of pursuing justice for all citizens and to keep that tradition alive.
I deplore the subtle, fabricated messages being telegraphed to our children by the executive order on immigration. Children often perceive only the headlines which, in this case, communicate deeply troubling messages. Three of these headline falsehoods are particularly harmful. They are:
There is obviously no factual support for any of these clearly enunciated messages, yet each of them undermines our stability, our values and our prosperity. To visit these untruths on our unsuspecting children and youth, who look to leaders for direction and security, is not only reprehensible in the extreme but likely to unleash all sorts of dark winds (see Quebec City massacre) in our schools and society.
We, as educators, now inherit the responsibility for repairing the damage by speaking truth to overcome these lies.
The ban is certain to have a large impact on international student enrollment and faculty recruitment, well beyond the bans on immigration from the seven specific countries and beyond the 90 days that the ban is in effect for. Students and faculty will be asking themselves, “Will my country be next? What restrictions will be placed on my travel? How secure will my position in the United States be over the years I will be there?” They are likely to consider other options for placement outside the United States, where they can feel more psychologically secure about their position in the country.
This, in turn, will affect American students’ understandings of the world. Exposure to individuals from other parts of the world reduces prejudice. A lack of faculty from other countries, especially those that are predominantly Muslim, along with students’ lack of relationships with peers from those countries will prevent American students from developing broader understandings of the world, with important and worrisome consequences for our global world.
Lastly, the ban is having a chilling effect on immigrant communities. Confusion over who is affected, and who will be affected next, is already present. Undocumented children have always been worried about their parents being deported, and now that is extending to children of other immigrants. Students previously eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are having their hopes shattered. The emotional toll is real and growing.
The president’s executive order and immigration ban is shaking up colleges and universities, as these communities are the homes to so many international students and scholars. During this time, colleges and universities must support, assist, and advocate for their affected community members. Simple actions like offering and holding space is incredibly important as there is an immense feeling of uncertainty looming over those who are affected.
Leaders of higher education institutions must know and understand their legal bounds, to push the legal bounds. This executive order is becoming law, and while protest and activism will slow the process, and hopefully stop the order, it is still law in the interim. In the same spirit, colleges should provide clarity and interpretation on what the order means.
While it is clear on its face, unearthing the nuance of what this order means in practice is incredibly important. Here, a teach-in is a practical way a college could arm its communities with information, strategies, and resources to navigate this order.
Finally, like other federal actions in the past where colleges and universities made room for protest, demonstrations, and rallies; this work needs to continue. Our universities are a place where people are mobilized, and the community must know that they are can push the administration to hear and be attentive to the perspectives and experiences of the community.
A group of students at HGSE are taking action in the wake of this executive order. Through EduAct, a Harvard-based student organization that aims to organize and advocate for students, families, and schools, we’re hoping we can mitigate some of the negativity and divisiveness behind this policy.
As activists and as students, we recognize that beyond the political nuances of the recent executive orders on immigration, there are many students and families who feel incredibly vulnerable as they watch their government place bans against their countries. We also know that educators are having to make sense of this too. The explicitly negative messages they are receiving must be countered with messages of hope, love, and community.
Here’s how you can contribute to that: We have set up a table in the library for students to write letters of love to students, educators, and families during this incredibly difficult time. And we are encouraging students to write in their native languages as well, to welcome these students to this country both through words of love but through a language they are familiar with. EduAct will be mailing these letters out at the end of the week to various schools in Detroit, D.C., Los Angeles, and Boston.
“If you can only be tall because someone is on their knees then that’s a serious problem.” -Toni Morrison
I am more often less surprised by the latest injustice that ushers a strong wave our way and more surprised by the response of those who may have been moved by such a wave. I am happy to witness the outrage by many within the community and nation around the executive order and immigration ban. I am not happy that there is a ban, but happy to know many speak up, strategize, and protest against what they feel is wrong. Dead wrong. This country often employs wordplay as disillusion — a smokescreen. Often words and phrases used in official language flowers and perfumes the document’s original funky intent. This immigration executive order is a legal term for ban on Muslims and though it may not be said, I know it is felt. As with separate and equal, these terms and words are sleight of hand conducted by a particular power structure that plays the role of magician, or better yet, three card monte hustlers. Though the words connote and energize injustice, I hope we all see the commonality in those who employ the words and assert the actions. I hope we see a pattern in those who delete black lives as they try and survive in a police state; I wish for us to notice those that backlashed by not electing a woman president; and I desire for us to be aware of a pattern that this latest exclusion fits within. They all are hurtful decisions and actions conducted by one common denominator; yet, we often fight for the fraction of the battle that touches us personally. That’s a problem. I foresee a solution in being allies and truly supporting each other across lines of race, class, culture, and gender. I mean real support not just political empathy or sympathy. We can no longer wait for the wave of injustice to touch us and knock us off our feet. We all must get on board with one another’s outrage and endeavors so we don’t drown in our own cause. United.
Yesterday, I overheard students talk about “how much fun” they had at Sunday’s protest against the executive order on immigration. “I know,” I think to myself. After all, the evidence is there for all to see: a sea of smiling faces on my Facebook feed, groups of friends holding placards, whilst one of them takes the selfie. “Well done!” read the comments. “I am so proud of you!” “Wish I were there with you!”
Then I see another link courtesy of a friend from Norway. It is entitled “White Rose” and reminds me of the plight, bravery, courage, and sacrifice shown by Sophie Scholl who together with her brother founded a resistance movement called the White Rose in Nazi Germany. They distributed pamphlets severely criticizing the regime. In 1943, she was arrested and executed. She was 21.
I was born in Germany and so the developments we have witnessed over the last few weeks are not just worrying — they are terrifying. Terrifying because I know that resisting a tide of hatred won’t be easy. There will be a price to pay. And I wonder, when I see photos of protests that have an air of street party about them, whether we truly understand what may be asked of us.
Activism is not about doing what feels good — it is about doing what is right. It’s not about approval, praise, a pat on the back. It’s not about us. It’s not about our voices. It is about those voices that are being denied. When we call ourselves activists, leaders, educators, changers of the world — let us not forget that what we are doing is the moral baseline. It is nothing special — it is the norm. To believe otherwise, to ascribe a special status to our actions, is nothing but moral masturbation. The real question is: How much are we prepared to sacrifice?