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Trump's executive order on immigration makes local researchers anxious about their futures

Sina Nassiri and Mehrdad Alvandipour are Iranian students at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Sina Nassiri and Mehrdad Alvandipour moved from Iran to the United States in August 2015, to study at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. After President DonaTrump's executive order on immigration, they fear they won't see their families for years.

In August 2015, Mehrdad Alvandipour arrived in the United States from Iran to pursue graduate degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

“Basically, I love science,” he said. “That’s the reason I traveled here, to study at a good university and improve myself.”

Alvandipour hoped that studying at SIUE would put him on track to become a professor at an American university. But President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration has him, and other international research students in the St. Louis region, worried about the future.

With a multi-entry visa, Alvandipour had been able to travel back and forth between the United States and Iran. He was looking forward to visiting his family for the Persian New Year in March. The executive order on immigration — which temporarily bars immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Somalia — nixed those plans. 

Concerned that he would not be allowed back into the United States from Iran, Alvandipour canceled his flight and returned many souvenirs.

“I bought several things to give to my sisters, my mother and my friends and at the end, all those dreams and all of those gifts that I bought, actually, I couldn’t give to my loved ones,” he said. “And I had to return them. It’s painful, really. I don’t know what to say.”

Alvandipour and other students who came to the United States from the seven predominantly Muslim countries on visas worry that they can’t leave the country for the next three months. If they do, they risk being denied re-entry into the country to continue their research and finish their degrees.

The policy affects 35 students at SIUE, 41 at Washington University and 27 at University of Missouri-St. Louis. Most of them are pursuing advanced degrees.  

Abdolreza Osouli, a professor at the department of civil engineering at SIUE, described the situation as a “big prison” for his students, most of whom are from Iran or Iraq. Osouli also can sympathize, since he was once a student from Iran who arrived in the U.S. on a visa.

“It’s worth noting that a student of mine, even if they can do research, they need peace in their mind,” Osouli said. “They shouldn’t be afraid that, ‘Okay, if my mother had a heart attack, or this happened or that happened, I’m not going to be able to go back to visit.’ So that feeling is a very tough kind of emotional feeling that not everyone can stand.”

The executive order also makes it difficult for professors like Osouli to do research. His projects are often planned out in advance and require the help of graduate students, so they must be able to enroll when the semester starts. Ultimately, even if a very talented prospective student applies for a position in the laboratory, he doesn’t want to risk admitting someone who could be denied entry into the United States.

“I’m going to skip this chance and maybe give it to some other people that may be less qualified,” Osouli said. “But I have pretty good confidence that they will be here.”

Sina Nassiri, one of Osouli’s engineering students, said acquiring a visa is already tough process.

“I’ve heard stories from students who’ve been on background checks for six months, one year," Nassiri said. "Some of them even lost their admission, they have to go through it again."

Nassiri’s background check took nine weeks and one day, and he considered himself lucky compared to those who have been rejected multiple times. However, he was granted a single-entry visa. When he asked the immigration officer why it wasn’t multi-entry, he said the officer told him it was because of a “variety of reasons.”

At SIUE, 23 Iranian students were admitted to begin attending classes in August 2016. Only four of them enrolled. Visa complications may not have been the only reason for the low number, but Nassiri and other Iranian students strongly believe that it played a major role.  

Even though the executive order is temporary, Nassiri fears that things will continue to get worse for him and other students from Muslim countries.

“The scariest part is not this,” Nassiri said. “This is the first movement of the gear of the devil’s machine. They’re going to force us, with whatever tool they have, to come back to our country.”

Many research institutions in St. Louis depend on the work of international researchers. Biologist Patricia Parker directs one of them, the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at UMSL.

“In my lab alone right now, we have students from Madagascar, from Peru, Ecuador, from Papua New Guinea," she said. "And we have undergraduates who are hijab-wearing young women in the lab from Jordan and recently from Syria.”

Parker has no doubt the executive order will limit the application pool for positions at her laboratory and other research centers in St. Louis. When there’s a limited pool of applicants, that hurts the research.

“As a scientist, it feels like an arbitrary exclusion of perfectly well-qualified, good, young scientists who could be the people who make the next big discoveries," Parker said. "And we’re telling them that we don’t want them and that they can’t come."

The policy is also causing the some international students to question the choices they’ve made. Among them is Kimia, an Iranian PhD student at UMSL who studies plant hormones. St. Louis Public Radio is not publishing her last name to protect her privacy.

“Four years ago, when I was deciding to choose some school to study abroad, I had the option to choose between United States, Australia and Canada,” she said. “I thought, well, United States is the land of freedom. United States is the land of opportunities. But now, after four years, I really regret. I really regret not to go to Canada."

Kimia and her husband arrived in late 2012 to pursue advanced degrees in the St. Louis area and since then, both of their visas have expired. Kimia has another few years before she finishes her Ph.D, but her husband graduates this May. Their hope is that he’ll qualify for optional practical training, which could allow him to stay and work in the United States for another couple years. But she’s uncertain what will happen under the new administration.

“I love studying. I love research,” Kimia said. “But if we have to go back because my husband has to go back, I will go with him.”

Other students have realized that in pursuit of their studies, they may not see their families for years. Alvandipour will most likely have to pursue a Ph.D in order to become a professor and that could keep him in the U.S. for another seven years, at least.

“I left that country with the dream and hope for a free society that accepts me,” Alvandipour said. “Now, I’m experiencing the same kind of persecution that I experienced in Iran.”

Follow Eli on Twitter @StoriesByEli.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.