Universities tell foreign students: Don’t go anywhere

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MILES O’BRIEN: Let’s take a different look at the impact of the immigration orders from the lens of higher education.

It’s the focus of our weekly segment Making the Grade.

There are nearly one million international students in U.S. colleges and universities. The number of students who came from the seven affected countries is much smaller, about 17,000, and most of those are from Iran.

The president’s temporary ban sparked anxiety and protests on a number of campuses around the country. Faculty and students both expressed worries about the wider message.

Here are some reactions, first at the City University of New York, or CUNY, and then from an Iranian student at the University of Alabama.

HERCULES REED, Student Government President, CUNY: You cannot look at the faces of nearly half-a-million students of CUNY without seeing the faces and stories of millions around the world.

Forty percent of our CUNY students are born in another country. More than half of us speak a second language at home. At my campus alone, we have students representing over 150 countries.

BHROUZ KHODADIDI, Student, University of Alabama: I just got a postdoctoral offer from another U.S. university, and I’m just worried about my future, let alone living in the U.S. I’m worried that they’re going to deport me.

MILES O’BRIEN: More perspective on these issues now from Angel Cabrera, the president of the George Mason University, the largest public university in Virginia, serving about 34,000 students. Born in Madrid, Cabrera is the first native of Spain to lead an American university.

Good to have you with us, Mr. Cabrera.

ANGEL CABRERA, President, George Mason University: Thank you for having me.

MILES O’BRIEN: First of all, let’s talk about your perspective as an immigrant yourself, having seen the university system here from Spain, and now on the inside. I’m curious how that affects your perspective on this whole issue.

ANGEL CABRERA: Well, first of all, the American universities have a tremendous advantage around the world, because they’re the number one place where students from all over the world want to study.

I was there myself. I graduated from college from Madrid, Spain, and my dream was to come to one of the great American research universities. And like that, there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of students from around the world every year.

MILES O’BRIEN: And the higher education system here really does remain a magnet, doesn’t it?

ANGEL CABRERA: Absolutely.

And not only that gives the American university a great advantage, but it gives an advantage, also, to the American economy. I mean, when you do the numbers and look at, for example, out of the recent start-ups, how many have reached $1 billion or more, about 40 percent of them have been founded or co-founded by a foreign-born individual.

Most of them, by the way, come to the U.S. to study.

MILES O’BRIEN: My understanding is most student don’t have green cards. They have student visas.

ANGEL CABRERA: That’s correct.

MILES O’BRIEN: Which means that that carve-out for green cards that we have been talking about the past couple of days doesn’t apply to most of these students.

So, give us an idea of the immediate impact on your campus and campuses elsewhere in the U.S.

ANGEL CABRERA: Yes.

Well, in our case, we have 82 students who have what we call an F-1 visa, which is a student visa, from those countries. And we have about five J-1 visa holders, who tend to be exchange scholars. It could be a visiting professor. It could be someone getting their Ph.D. here.

We are trying to figure out where all of them are. I think we have accounted for most of them. We have heard, unfortunately, from one of our students from Libya who was stuck in Istanbul trying to board a plane to come to us. So she may have to cancel classes this semester and try to figure out whether maybe she can take some of the class online.

MILES O’BRIEN: What is your advice to students whether they’re here or there?

ANGEL CABRERA: Well, what we’re telling our employees, our students, our faculty is, don’t go anywhere right now, until it’s more clear, because if you step outside of the United States, you may not be able to come back in.

That’s, of course, easier said than done. Some of them have research projects or they may have even family issues that require for them to go outside. Right now, we’re saying, do your best to not leave the country.

MILES O’BRIEN: The idea, according to the Trump administration, is to make things safer for Americans.

And just this past November, a Somali refugee, student at Ohio State University, had a stabbing spree; 11 people were injured before he was subsequently killed.

Is there a sense among yourself and other college presidents that this is a measure that could make things safer on campuses?

ANGEL CABRERA: Well, I don’t have the data. I don’t have the evidence.

I hope that those people who make these decisions may have data that really links the presence of those kinds of students to national security issues. We don’t have that kind of evidence. On our campus, our students from those countries actually have never posed a threat of any kind.

On the contrary, I think that the presence of people from all over the world increases the understanding of our students. When you’re in class with people from other countries, you get to see the world in a more nuanced way. You start to understand how things are perceived from other angles.

So, from my perspective, one of the best things that one can do to in fact improve the understanding and diminish the probability of safety issues is to create understanding, is to engage in scholarly exchange.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s worth putting this, I think, in context into the larger economic ecosystem.

The American university system has a direct link to certainly Silicon Valley. Lots of Silicon Valley CEOs came to the United States through this route specifically. Over time, how much of an impact would this have, ultimately, potentially, on jobs in America?

ANGEL CABRERA: Well, I think when we talk about immigration, most people start thinking immediately about low-skilled labor.

The part that is left out, and it shouldn’t because it’s essential to the economy of the United States, it’s the knowledge worker. It’s the graduate student; 75 percent or more of graduate students in engineering and computer science in the United States today are immigrants.

When you look at start-ups in technology, some of the most innovative companies, the ones that all of our graduates want to work for, about 40 percent of those that have achieved $1 billion or more were founded or co-founded by immigrants.

If you look at scientific achievement, 40 percent of the Nobel Prize winners in this country, whether it’s chemistry, medicine and physiology or physics, about 40 percent were born outside of the United States. So our science is tied to immigration. Our entrepreneurship is tied to immigration. Our innovation is tied to immigration.

MILES O’BRIEN: Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University, thank you for your time.

ANGEL CABRERA: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

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