College applauds Biden action on immigration

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE JUNIOR Leili Mashhadi Manafi has not seen her parents in her native Iran since 2019 because she feared Trump immigration officials wouldn’t let her return to the United States. She welcomed President Biden’s repeal of the Muslim travel ban.

Sometimes I’m just very homesick or something happens back home and I want to help and be there, but I can’t.
— Leili Mashhadi Manafi, Middlebury student from Iran

MIDDLEBURY — On his first day in office, Jan. 20, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a “Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the United States,” which revoked former President Trump’s “Muslim ban.”
“The previous administration enacted a number of Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations that prevented certain individuals from entering the United States — first from primarily Muslim countries, and later, from largely African countries,” Biden wrote. “Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.”
A couple of miles east of the White House, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Middlebury College junior and Iranian national Leili Mashhadi Manafi was living in a short-term apartment with some of her classmates.
“My first reaction was, ‘My parents can come to my graduation,’” Manafi told the Independent. “Hopefully they will. I don’t know how long it will take for the order to be applied. It might take a year, a couple of months. But that was my initial thought.”
Manafi, who is scheduled to graduate in 2022, arrived in Middlebury in August 2018 on a student visa. She managed during the summer of 2019 to visit her family, who live in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz, but she hasn’t attempted to see them since — because of the pandemic and reports that students from banned countries weren’t being allowed back in the U.S. if they went abroad.

On Jan. 27, 2017, then-President Trump signed an executive order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which, among other things, blocked entry, for 90 days, of people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — despite the Department of Homeland Security’s conclusion that citizens of those countries didn’t pose an increased terror risk.
Because these are predominantly Muslim countries, the order came to be known as the “Muslim ban.” Trump himself called for a Muslim ban when running for office.
When border officials started enforcing the ban, those who were denied entry into the U.S. included students and legal residents returning from visits abroad.
Manafi’s uncle, Middlebury College Associate Professor of Religion Ata Anzali, had been on sabbatical in Tabriz when Trump signed the order. Afraid that he and his wife and two daughters would be prevented from returning to their home in Weybridge, Anzali ended his sabbatical several months early and returned to the states.
After Trump extended his Muslim ban it went through additional tweaks and various legal challenges over the ensuing 17 months, until it was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018.
Living under the ban has affected Manafi’s mental health, she said.
“Sometimes I’m just very homesick or something happens back home and I want to help and be there, but I can’t,” she said.
In November 2019 Manafi was unable to connect with her family through video platforms because the Iranian government had shut down the internet to curb nationwide protests over rising fuel prices.
“Not seeing my parents for a couple of weeks on video, it’s — I don’t know — it was scary,” she said.
Manafi, has coped, in part, by talking with her aunt and uncle in Weybridge, and by talking with friends in similar situations.
“I have two friends from Syria, and one of them hasn’t been home for basically five years,” she said. The friend had been approved to study at a United World College in the U.S., she explained, and then stayed here to go to college. “I would ask him for advice on how he deals with (the homesickness) and he would listen to me, and vice versa.”

When President Biden revoked the Muslim ban, Manafi called her parents to tell them. She also took a screenshot of the executive order and sent it to her boyfriend.
“I am sometimes just tired of physical distance. Let it be from my parents, my boyfriend, close friends,” she said. “…I am definitely grateful for my life, though. The executive order makes me a bit more hopeful — for myself and for people in similar situations.”
Manafi, who’s majoring in Computer Science with a minor in Religious Studies, has also been thinking about internships and jobs.
“There are companies, research positions and internships that do not support visa-sponsorship,” she explained, “but the better the terms are between the two countries, it’s a bit easier to get accepted to a company that will support work visas.”
Maybe, too, she’ll now qualify for internships abroad.
“There are internships, for instance, in the UK or in EU countries, but I never looked into them (before) because I knew I was not going to get my U.S. visa to come back here to continue my studies.”

Middlebury College officials are also hopeful.
“Now that Biden has signed several proclamations on immigration, it’s an understatement to say that all of us in international education, including the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) staff at Middlebury, are breathing a huge sigh of relief,” said Kathy Foley, Associate Dean and Director of ISSS.
ISSS works closely with international students, staff, and faculty to ensure they can work, study or conduct research in Middlebury’s U.S. and international programs.
“While we only have a small number of students and scholars from the affected countries, some have not seen their families for years due to the bans,” Foley said. “They will now be able to depart from and return to the U.S. more easily.”

“It’s important to note that our international population still faces many challenges due to existing immigration regulations, policies and practices, and that the past four years have dramatically altered the landscape,” Foley explained. “We are hopeful that immigration will remain a top issue for the new administration to help make some progress in this area.”
For Manafi, who comes from a Muslim background but doesn’t identify with any particular religion at this point in her life, those challenges have brought into stark relief the differences in privilege she has observed, and to some degree experienced, during her time in the U.S.
Even the simple task of obtaining a college degree, or moving freely about the world, can be made infinitely more difficult by restrictive or discriminatory policies.
“It could get challenging,” Manafi said. “For some of us there’s a lot more stuff our attention has to go toward. It requires a bit more support, a bit more emotional regulation just to be able to focus.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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