Alireza Tabatabaeenejad studies the properties of permafrost in the Arctic Circle. With NASA funding, the USC assistant professor of electrical engineering has been given the opportunity to travel to Alaska and Canada to get field measurements for his research.
But after President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday limiting travel and immigration for 90 days or more, Tabatabaeenejad will be unable to work on his research in Canada. Though this won't halt the project completely, it bothers him that he doesn't know whether he'll be able to participate or not.
Tabatabaeenejad is from Iran, one of the seven Muslim-majority countries travel-restricted by Trump's order. Effective immediately, the residents of these countries, along with refugees and U.S. permanent residents (also known as green card holders) found themselves unable to enter the United States. Members of the USC community affected by the ban were suddenly barred from travel into or out of the country.
"This situation is frustrating, stressful and insulting. When you are here but are not allowed to go outside of the U.S. because you are not going to be allowed back, it's insulting," said Tabatabaeenejad. "It is like a big prison, a voluntary prison that sometimes people have to tolerate because they are in the middle of their studies."
According to the USC Office of International Services, over 200 USC students come from the countries affected by the order: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
Since classes at USC begin early in January, most international students are already in the U.S. Tony Tambascia, executive director of the Office of International Services, said no USC students have been stranded abroad as a result of the executive order. But the university advised affected students to cancel or postpone travel plans to avoid being denied re-entry.
Tambascia said the international community has been concerned since the election, given the uncertainty of policies to come. Since Friday evening, he said, at least a dozen students affected by the executive order have contacted OIS for support. Although universities cannot directly impact policy, Tambascia said his office is advocating for friendlier policies for international students and providing information and support when needed.
"It's not just international students who are impacted by this executive order, but some faculty and staff, alumni, parents. I really think it hits across our academic community really broadly," he said. "So far, we've done what's appropriate and we don't know what's coming in the days ahead, so the university administration is thinking of ways to better support our international community."
A member of that international community, Tabatabaeenejad applied for citizenship around eight months ago to gain travel benefits and voting rights. However, he hasn't heard back from immigration services and is now unsure of what will happen to his application.
An essential part of Tabatabaeenejad's research is participating in international academic conferences. But because of conflicting information about how green card holders are affected by the ban, he is concerned that he might not be allowed back into the country if he leaves.
"If there is any opportunity for me to visit other universities or a need for me to go outside the U.S. for work purposes, at this moment, I'm not able to do that," he said. "Attending meetings and conferences is very important for the research. You present your work to others, you are exposed to other people's work, so it will directly impact my research."
According to the Wall Street Journal, very few of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil were carried out by suspects coming from the banned countries. Of the 180 people who committed terrorist attacks on or after September 11, 2001, 81 were American citizens and none were Sudanese, Syrian or Libyan.
Ehsan Emamjomeh-Zadeh, a doctoral student in computer science from Iran, said he thinks the ban has nothing to do with the safety of the American people. Worried that he will not be able to come back into the country if he leaves, he felt the executive order is targeting the wrong people.
"It's probably more of a political executive order than something for the safety of the American people. I understand that the president must be really worried about the safety and security of the people here. That is totally understandable. But I don't think banning an Iranian student from coming to the USA will help in that," he said.
With two years left in his studies, Emamjomeh-Zadeh is concerned his family won't be able to come visit him or that he won't be allowed to leave the country without putting his studies at risk.
Provost Michael Quick sent a memo to the USC community on Sunday in support of the international students affected. In it, he said; "We want to assure you that we are fully committed to supporting all members of our Trojan Family – regardless of their national origin or religious affiliation. We are proud to have, and we are better by having, a richly diverse community. We will do everything we can to ensure all of our academic community can continue to study, research, and teach at USC."
USC faculty and administration took a more proactive step to express their support for the students and faculty affected by the ban. More than 70 faculty members have signed the Academics Against the Executive Order online petition, in which they ask Trump to reconsider his immigration policy. More than 6,000 academics throughout the country have signed it as well.
However, Jason Zevin, an associate professor of psychology and linguistics and one of the signatories of the letter, believes the school can strive to do more. Universities across the country have written open letters to the White House, hired Muslim chaplains to boost support, and had their presidents publicly address Trump. USC however, has yet to hear from President Nikias himself.
"I think we can make concrete statements about what kind of support we're willing to offer students that are affected by this," said Zevin. "I think we can show leadership in dealing with an administration that is looking like it's going to be acting against our values pretty consistently."
Reach staff reporter Miranda Mazariegos here.