Not the Country Promised

Martin T. Meehan, MPA, JD / June 12, 2017

The federal government’s travel ban sends an unwelcome message to international students and faculty

Recent federal immigration policies have made headlines, sparked protests and legal challenges, and created anxiety and confusion among a large population in this country who are no longer sure if they’re welcome here.

At the University of Massachusetts, these policies have sowed a real sense of fear on our five campuses — and not just among Visa holders or undocumented students. We have U.S. citizens with dual nationality, legal permanent residents, and people with pending green cards who are worried about their ability to travel, their rights if approached by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and their safety and security on and off campus. Meanwhile, U.S. citizen students, faculty, and staff are understandably concerned for their international peers.

Shortly after the first immigration order in January, two UMass Dartmouth engineering professors — both Iranian immigrants who have lived in the United States as lawful permanent residents for more than a decade — were detained at Boston’s Logan Airport on a return trip from an academic conference in Paris.

With help from ACLU lawyers, they were released after four hours, but their detention sent a clear message about how directly these policies would affect us as a university. The incident had a profound impact on our university community.

We have 7,300 international students, 850 international employees with temporary visas – mainly post-docs, faculty and medical residents – and 1,300 employees — largely faculty — who immigrated and are now permanent legal residents. Of those, more than 300 students and 166 faculty and staff hail from the six countries targeted by the President’s initial immigration order, many of whom were — and still are — confused, scared, outraged, or a combination thereof regarding the administration’s plans and their own fate.

In response to these policies, we have taken decisive steps to ensure a safe and inclusive environment for all of our students, regardless of immigration status, and to reaffirm our commitment to welcoming international scholars.

In February, UMass joined Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s lawsuit against the federal government over the first executive order. In March, the university joined — also through Healey’s office — a suit brought by the State of Washington over the second executive order.

We have established a system-wide immigration task force, hosted immigration town hall sessions, launched a voluntary travel registry, and created campus-specific immigration resources to support our students and faculty.

We are assessing the need for summer housing for students who are not comfortable leaving the country or traveling for academic breaks, and we continue to work with various higher education industry organizations to lobby against harmful immigration policy.

We will do everything in our power to mitigate the effects of these ill-advised, harmful actions, because our mission as a public research university dedicated to advancing knowledge and transforming lives is at stake.

We welcomed our first international student to UMass in 1870. Today, we actively recruit the most innovative faculty, the brightest minds, and the most promising entrepreneurs from around the world. We invite them here to enrich our campuses with their knowledge and their perspectives, to spark the economy with cutting-edge ideas and inventions, and to work on collaborative research that solves global problems like HIV-AIDS and Ebola.

These international scholars are not just a welcome addition to our campuses; they are an essential part of our mission, our identity, and our success. They make us more competitive, more innovative, and more empathetic, and the intercultural bonds we develop make us stronger and safer.

We can’t be a world-class research institution and not reach out to scientists, scholars, and faculty members from all over the world.

And we are not alone.

Every sector of society is enhanced by the intellectual contribution of non-citizens. Every sector is harmed by an attempt to marginalize or exclude them. Closing our minds and our borders weakens our stature in every sense, and it strikes at the very concept of what it means to be American.

These policies are disheartening. This is simply not the country we promised our international students and scholars when we invited them to study, teach, and conduct research here.

While many on our campuses have been shaken, we feel strongly that the true spirit of America — a nation of immigrants in search of a better life, a land of opportunity, where liberty and justice are promised for all — will prevail.

University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan is the first undergraduate alumnus to lead the five-campus UMass system.