An audience of about 50 Rackham students and community members gathered Friday evening at the Walgreen Drama Center for a panel discussion on the effects of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel and immigration from seven different Muslim-majority countries to the United States.

The panel, sponsored by the Engineering Office of Graduate Education and tailored toward graduate students, aimed to clarify questions surrounding the legality and status of the executive order.

It began with remarks from University President Mark Schlissel, who reiterated the words of his initial statement regarding the ban. He was among the first of university presidents to publicly denounce it, confirming the University of Michigan would not release the immigration status of any of its students.

“The leadership of the University appreciates that we’re a nation of immigrants,” Schlissel said. “We wouldn’t be who we are without successive generations of talented, hard-working people from all over the world that come here to educate themselves … please don’t be discouraged by what I hope is a hiccup in American history. Please realize that we’re committed to you as members of our community, and we’ll do all the things we know how to do … to support you and your education.”

As a citizen of one of the seven banned countries herself, event organizer Mina Jafari, a Rackham student, expressed her own confusion about how the ban inspired her to bring information to her peers.

“I’m from one of those seven countries, and this whole situation, especially the weekend after the executive order, raised lots of questions and concerns among people affected and even people who are not directly affected,” Jafari said. “It’s not just international students from those seven countries; the entire international community is very worried about what’s going to happen next.”

Panelists aimed to satisfy this need for knowledge by speaking about the legal and administrative aspects of the executive order. Each stressed the complexity of the issue and encouraged students to reach out to any of their offices for individualized assistance in navigating the ban.

Cynthia Wilbanks, University vice president for government relations, spoke about the University’s collaboration with other organizations and officials like the Association of American Universities since the introduction of the ban. 

“These activities, one on their own is not sufficient, but collectively, in ways that we try to join the other interested and very seriously impacted organizations helps us to amplify the messages we want to be sure are heard,” she said, explaining the collaboration aimed to advocate for students’ rights under the order.

Donica Varner, the University’s associate general, spoke next, outlining the steps the University has taken so far to meet the needs of affected and concerned community members.

She said there is a list of community resources for legal assistance and rights protection available to all community members on the Office of the General Counsel’s website, and advised those who may be affected to use the additional resources the International Center has for them.

“We are continuing to advise non-immigrant visa holders from the previously restricted countries to meet with an IC counselor before making any international travel plans,” Varner said. “That’s whether you’re faculty, staff, scholar or student. And all students, international or not, we strongly encourage you to register your travel on the University’s travel registry … that allows us to more quickly (assist) you if you have problems on reentry.”

Panelist Margo Schlanger, a Law professor at the University, then outlined the legal status of the executive order. While the order is currently not being enforced as per the demands of four federal district judges, Schlanger said it raises a number of constitutional questions. She also said, however, that as long as it is done in a constitutional manner, the president does have the ability to change the nation’s immigration policies.

Schlanger said the University is trying to stay as informed as possible, while simultaneously providing the most accurate counsel to affected students and staff. Occasionally, this can lead to a delay in action.

“Sometimes accurate and careful and timely are a little bit at war with each other,” she said. “But we don’t want to over speak. Nobody wants to say, ‘Yes, you can do that,’ and have it be wrong, and nobody wants to say, ‘No, cancel your trip,’ and have it be bad advice. The cost of careful and accurate is sometimes a tiny bit of slow, but people have been working very hard to make it not slow.”

Engineering graduate student Abhinav Sharma, an international student from a non-affected country, came to the event to learn about how he could support his friends throughout this situation.

“I’m an international student, one of the things I want to find out — I am not directly affected by the ban, but I do feel for those affected by it — so is there something I can do while somehow not involving myself as much?” Sharma said. “Because a lot of international students are looking at it as, ‘Oh, it’s not my place to do anything about it, because it’s not my country, per se’ … I felt like the most I can do is just be open and spread knowledge.” 

A Q&A session followed the panel, allowing the audience to ask specific questions that have been weighing on them in the confusion of the recent weeks.

Questions included inquiries about resources for graduate students whose research has been stunted by the ban and how the panelists thought the order would affect international students from unrestricted countries. In most cases, the panelists responded with a reminder that each situation is different and requires individualized help.

The last question of the night concerned the legality and safety of participating in protests for international students, and whether legislation to curb protests has been introduced in the state.

According to Wilbanks, nothing of the sort has been introduced in Michigan, and citizens, immigrants and non-immigrants alike are all allowed to exercise their right to free speech. But her final answer to the question summed up much of what the audience has been feeling lately regarding the travel ban.

“In the Michigan legislature, there hasn’t been any proposal or introduction of legislation specific to that,” Wilbanks said. “Nothing along the lines of restriction of protest … (however), the mere introduction of legislation can have a chilling effect.”

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