Trump v. Hawaii, why should we care?

On the last day of oral arguments of the current term, April 25, the Supreme Court will examine President Trump’s third travel ban. Specifically, the justices will consider the validity of Presidential Proclamation 9645 (September 24, 2017), captioned “Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats.” This ban is currently in effect, and revised two earlier bans.

This version of the ban places restrictions on those traveling to the United States who are nationals of one of seven countries: Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.

The following chart (from the amicus brief discussed below) shows the breakdown of visitors from these countries:

# of Students # of Scholars Total
Chad 66 4 70
Iran 12,643 1,977 14,620
Libya 1,311 64 1,375
North Korea 8 0 8
Somalia 50 5 55
Syria 827 123 950
Venezuela 8,540 269 8,809
Yemen 658 17 675
TOTAL 24,103 2,459 26,562


The rules for the countries vary, but here are a few examples:

“The entry into the United States of nationals of Chad, as immigrants, and as nonimmigrants on business (B-1), tourist (B-2), and business/tourist (B-1/B-2) visas, is hereby suspended.”

“The entry into the United States of nationals of Iran as immigrants and as nonimmigrants is hereby suspended, except that entry by such nationals under valid student (F and M) and exchange visitor (J) visas is not suspended, although such individuals should be subject to enhanced screening and vetting requirements.”

“The entry into the United States of nationals of Syria as immigrants and nonimmigrants is hereby suspended.”

The Fact Sheet issued by the Department of Homeland Security is a handy place to learn more about the President’s three travel bans.

Those of us who care about higher education in this country should take careful note. A group of 33 higher education associations joined forces and recently submitted an amicus brief in the case to be heard on April 25.

Here are a few data highlights from their brief:

  • There are more than one million international students studying in the United States and they make up about 5.3% of all students in this country in higher education. All types of schools, everywhere in the country, host international students. The University of California, Los Angeles hosts about 12,000 international students. Private schools also have many international students: Rice University hosts over 1,600. And, two-year colleges are also welcome hosts: there are about 7,700 international students at Northern Virginia Community College.
  • In 2013, international students accounted for 39% of Ph.D. students in STEM fields and this is predicted to climb to 50% by 2020.
  • From fall 2016 to fall 2017 there was a decline in the number of international students and the National Science Foundation has noted a 2.2% drop in undergraduates and a 5.5% drop in graduate students. The highest declines are in applications from the Middle East.
  • Canada, Britain, France and Germany have all launched funding programs to recruit researchers from the United States. The most popular study destination choices by all applicants this year are: the US (48%), the UK (42%), Canada (34%), Australia (28%) and Germany (28%).

While the largest drop in new applications is from potential students from the Middle East, the amicus brief states that the President’s order “sends a clarion message of exclusion to millions around the globe that America’s doors are no longer open to foreign students, scholars, lecturers, and researchers.” The travel bans send an unwelcoming message and will deter students and scholars from all over the world – not only from the countries currently included in the ban – from travelling to and from the U.S.

The State Department issued 393,573 student visas (F-1s) in the year that ended on September 30, 2017. This is a decline of 17% from the previous year and about 40% below the 2015 peak. Part of this drop is due to a change for Chinese students – their visas are now good for 5 years instead of 1, meaning fewer visas are issued each year. But, still, if China is taken out of the mix, the one year decline from 2016 to 2017 is 13%.

In a previous post, I argued that mathematics and engineering are at risk of being hit especially hard by decreasing applications from abroad. And, further, that Master’s degree programs in mathematics might be especially hard hit.

The arguments in the amicus brief against the President’s order are not unfamiliar to us, and include:

  1. Colleges and universities rely on the global exchange of people and ideas to push forward the knowledge frontier. The U.S. must maintain its deep commitment to ensuring the free flow of ideas taking place in our classrooms and labs and at conferences around the world. The international community of scholars has been built over decades and policies such as this travel ban threaten its strength and could very well lead to slower progress addressing global challenges.
  2. International students and scholars strengthen our economy. It is estimated that international students contributed roughly $37 billion dollars to the U.S. economy during the 2016-17 academic year and created or supported 450,000 jobs during that period.
  3. Educating foreign-born students and collaboration with foreign-born scholars provide an “opportunity to promote the ideals that, together, make up the social, political, and cultural fabric of this country.” Academic visitors to the U.S. are exposed to our democratic principles and values, which are then transmitted around the world when the individuals return to their home countries.

Harvard graduate student Ziad Reslan wrote passionately about his fear and sorrow following one of the earlier travel bans; he also articulates what the U.S. has to lose by closing its doors to such students:

After spending a few years here, we go back home with affectionate knowledge of Americans and their culture. We serve as diplomats of American culture, as informal advisers, as cultural bridges. It will now be harder to sell the American dream of a nation blind to religion and creed back home. It will be harder still to defend U.S. foreign policy, when America bars citizens of the very countries its military has targeted.

It is not just isolated graduate students writing. Over 43,000 supporters including over 31,000 academics, 62 Nobel Laureates, and 146 winners of prestigious prizes such as the Fields Medal signed an online petition denouncing President Trump’s ban. [You are welcome to sign.]

In a previous case, (Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387, 2012), the Supreme Court justices have asserted that the “history of the United States is in part made of the stories, talents, and lasting contributions of those who crossed oceans and deserts to come here.” Let’s hope this sentiment is at the forefront of the justices’ minds on April 25.





About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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