BLACKSBURG — The lone Virginia Tech student stranded in her home country since January by President Donald Trump’s immigrant travel ban is back on campus.
Sarah Mostafavi, a 25-year-old engineering graduate student from Iran, was welcomed back to school at a reception June 5. But the temporary ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries caused her to miss a semester of her studies and has complicated her degree plan.
Mostafavi, who is about halfway through a master’s degree in industrial and systems engineering, expressed gratitude to all the people who heard her story and did what they could to help, including Tech staff and administrators.
“I had very good support from the university. It was unbelievable,” Mostafavi said. “That was very heartwarming thing for me. But the fact this was happening in the U.S., for me, that was kind of shocking.”
“She had to go through a lot,” interim ISE department head Eileen Van Aken said. Visa delays are not unheard of, she added. But it’s rare for a student to miss an entire semester.
In the graduate school, visa problems were uncommon until the travel ban created uncertainty, Vice President for Graduate Education Karen DePauw wrote in an email. About a third of Tech graduate students come from other countries, and Iranian students are the third largest group, DePauw wrote.
University officials have said Mostafavi was the only Tech student kept out of the country by the ban, which was established by executive order on Jan. 27. The order barred people from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia from entering the U.S. for 90 days. It, and a revised executive order that removed Iraq from the list, have been halted by federal judges. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide whether or not to take up the issue.
Mostafavi’s problems began last year with intractable back pain, she said. She came to Tech from Iran in January 2016 to study and do research in the university’s top 10-ranked ISE department. She studies complex social systems, such as Airbnb, and how to make them work better.
Around May 2016, Mostafavi said, she began to suffer nerve pain in her back and leg. By November, she said, it was more than she could stand. She was diagnosed with focal disk herniation.
“I had lots of injections, but they didn’t help,” Mostafavi said. “I had to go back to Iran for a surgery. If it wasn’t necessary, I wouldn’t have gone back after Trump was chosen” in the November election.
The president’s hard-line stance on immigration unnerved some international students and faculty and their advocates .
But, Mostafavi said she told herself it would be OK. She flew to Iran for treatment believing she would soon return. Knowing visa approvals can take time, Mostafavi said she contacted the embassy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Nov. 22 for permission to return to the U.S. after her treatment.
There is no American embassy in Iran, so applicants must work through a country with diplomatic ties to the U.S.
The embassy warned her that it would take a while. But she had previously been cleared for entry, and they foresaw no problems with her case. On Jan. 19, 2017, the embassy notified her that she could send her passport. It would then be stamped and her visa issued, she was told.
Then politics intervened.
Mostafavi said she thinks her passport was delivered to the embassy hours before news that President Trump would sign the travel ban. On Jan. 31, her passport arrived back in Tehran, but it was not stamped.
Included was a form letter that she later posted to Facebook. It read, in part: “Your application for a nonresident visa has been refused under section 212(f) of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act. There is no waiver available for cases refused under 212(f).”
That statute gives presidents broad authority to restrict foreign travel or immigration to the U.S. to protect the national interest. To Mostafavi, it seemed she was being lumped in with terrorists.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I am a student. I do no harm.”
Growing increasingly alarmed, on Feb. 3, Mostafavi posted a plea to Facebook: “What will happen to my house, my stuff, my office, my work, my studies and my life?” she wrote. “Nobody cares.”
But people did care. The post has since been shared more than 1,600 times, and Tech officials went to work on her case.
Support came from the university counsel’s office — an arm of the state Attorney General’s office. Representatives of Tech’s graduate school and the ISE department reached out. Even strangers Mostafavi had never met offered encouragement.
That same day, Feb. 3, a U.S. federal judge halted the travel ban. Mostafavi immediately contacted the embassy to ask if she could send her passport again to get the visa. They said yes, and she mailed it back to Dubai on Feb. 9.
A month later, it was returned to her, still unstamped. Her visa was not just delayed, she learned. It had been canceled.
If she wanted to return to Tech, Mostafavi would have to start the visa process over from the beginning, including an in-person interview with an embassy official in Dubai. Getting it scheduled would take weeks, and help from the office of U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem. There were no guarantees. The travel ban could be reinstated at any time.
Meanwhile, Tech’s spring semester had begun on Jan. 17, and the missed class days ticked by.
Griffith, who represents Southwest Virginia, is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and has been a hardliner on some parts of U.S. immigration policy. He declined through spokeswoman Jessica Paska to comment on Mostafavi’s case, citing privacy concerns. Paska wrote in an email that “our office regularly assists constituents with visas, passports, etc.”
Tech’s federal legislative liaison, David Tinsley, did not respond to messages seeking comment. But Mostafavi and some Tech administrators said Griffith’s office did work on the case.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat who has argued in legal filings against the ban, wrote in a statement that his staff helped with Mostafavi’s visa problem.
“We have been aware of her situation and several similar situations where Virginia students were unable to or feared not being able to return to Virginia to continue their research and studies,” Herring wrote. “We are actively working with our clients at all colleges and universities to stay on top of the effects of the ban and provide assistance as needed, as was done in this situation,” according to the statement. “Colleges and universities who welcome international students, faculty, and researchers are some of the most vulnerable entities to the significant harms that President Trump’s ban would have.”
DePauw, of the Tech graduate school, wrote in an email that if the “ban is upheld it will have a chilling effect upon graduate student enrollment and we would not be able enroll highly qualified students from those countries.”
Justice Department attorneys struggled during a federal hearing in March on the first version of the ban to show clear evidence of terrorist acts committed by travelers from the countries singled out in the order, according to reports from USA Today.
The revised ban points to risks posed by the “extensive ties that each of the six countries have with terrorist organizations, from Iran’s support of terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas to ISIS activities in Libya to an al-Qaeda offshoot operating in Yemen,” USA Today reported.
That perspective perplexes Tech professor Navid Ghaffarzadegan, an Iranian immigrant and Mostafavi’s academic advisor.
ISIS, the major terrorist group operating in the Middle East, is as much an enemy of Iran as it is of the U.S., he said. The group claimed responsibility for two deadly terrorist attacks earlier this month in Tehran, where such violence has been rare. Both Mostafavi and Ghaffarzadegan are from Tehran. They both said their friends and family were safe.
If reinstated, the revised travel ban could have a big impact on Iranian students.
According to data from the nonprofit International Education Exchange, which tracks international students studying in America, in 2015-16 there were 12,269 Iranians studying in the U.S. The other five countries included in Trump’s revised executive order — Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia — had a total of 3,220 students in American colleges and universities that year.
Making it more difficult for Iranian students to come is “a bad idea for the United States,” the professor said.
“I teach classes for undergraduates at Virginia Tech, and a high majority are Americans and are from Virginia,” Ghaffarzadegan said. “And I am helping the economic development of the area, training these individuals who are going to work in industry. This is a benefit we get from people from other countries who come here.”
Ghaffarzadegan said Iranians of his generation have studied in the U.S. and gone on to jobs at American universities and large firms such as Apple.
Those who study in America and go home to Iran help foster friendship and cooperation between the two countries, he said. The travel ban and efforts like it can damage those ties, he added, and destroy the dreams of innocent young people who want to make a better life.
Repairing the damage
Eventually, Mostafavi was given a March 30 interview appointment at the U.S. embassy in Dubai. The interviewer remembered her, Mostafavi said, asked about her back pain and empathized with her bad luck.
But there were more struggles to come. While she waited to hear about her visa application, her U.S. bank blocked her account, making it difficult to pay rent on her Blacksburg apartment.
The problem? U.S. sanctions on Iran. Because her Blacksburg income was off limits to her in Tehran, to pay living expenses, Mostafavi said she took work as a private math tutor.
“You’re just like crying and very nervous, saying this is my life and it’s almost ruined,” Mostafavi said. “I have a house. But they just say: ‘Wait. Dear ma’am, just wait until further notice.’ ”
Meanwhile, administrators and staff from both the graduate school and the ISE department kept in frequent contact with her. She credits their support with keeping her going despite the uncertainty.
“I did not know [Graduate School Dean Karen] DePauw and people here before, but they were emailing me,” Mostafavi said. “They were constantly saying: ‘You’re going to get your master’s. Don’t worry. We’re going to make sure this will go as smoothly as we can.’”
“We wanted to make her feel connected to the department,” Van Aken of the ISE department said. “We really tried to just reinforce that.”
“The Graduate School was very concerned that Sarah’s return to the United States was delayed due to the timing of the actions around the travel ban and are so appreciative that she has returned safely to Blacksburg and VT,” DePauw wrote in an email.
Still, the visa troubles have complicated Mostafavi’s degree plan. She had hoped to do a professional internship this summer, but she could not apply for such a job from Iran.
Mostafavi said she can’t do an internship during the fall or spring semesters, when she will be taking courses.
Still, Mostafavi said, she will work hard to catch up on her research, and she is eager to get back to her studies in the fall.
“I knew that I wanted to study here, and I was no harm to this environment. I’m actually helping develop research,” Mostafavi said. “I will always remember: ‘OK, stick with what you are doing.’”
Mostafavi said she respects the views of supporters of the travel ban.
“This is a country where anybody can say anything that they want. That’s what makes it beautiful,” she said.
“But I think people should look more carefully, and look at all the aspects of something. Maybe your action has some consequences that you are not seeing right now.”