At USF and other college campuses, angst swells over immigration order

They decry the university president's decision not to make a statement in opposition of Trump's decree until late Monday.
Published January 31 2017
Updated January 31 2017


Several hundred students gathered with megaphones at the University of South Florida on Monday to protest President Donald Trump's order blocking visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. But they also directed their ire at USF president Judy Genshaft, who waited until Monday night to join her colleagues at the state's other large schools in making a statement on the issue.

"Immigration built this nation," students chanted beneath campus palm trees, holding homemade signs.

"Speak up, Judy!" one sign said.

"Hi Judy!" read another. "Your silence makes you complicit."

Trump's 90-day ban sent American universities scrambling to keep students calm as activists staged rallies amid confusion about students and professors stranded abroad. More than 17,000 students from the affected countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — have been urged to defer overseas travel, according to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Some university presidents have flatly condemned the ban, the effects of which are already being seen. A University of Central Florida doctoral student from Iran has been barred from re-entering the U.S., said officials at UCF, where president John C. Hitt sent out a statement late Monday saying "diversity and inclusivity make our university smarter and stronger" and quoting from an inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

University of Florida president Kent Fuchs and Florida State University president John Thrasher issued statements Sunday as protests intensified across the nation. Fuchs affirmed UF's solidarity with international students, faculty and staff. About 200 UF students come from the affected countries, he said. Thrasher said his school was "deeply concerned" about the new policy and said the school was "enriched and strengthened" by its international students.

Many at the morning USF rally clamored to hear from Genshaft, who has boasted in the past about her school's large and growing body of international students and who is working to pull even with UF and FSU by securing official status as a "pre-eminent" university in Florida.

Instead, students received an email from provost Ralph Wilcox, who said USF is "enriched and strengthened each day" by its sprawling population of international students, totaling 4,500.

"We are deeply committed to providing a warm and welcoming campus to students, faculty and staff from around the world," he wrote to students. This semester, 123 students from the affected countries attend USF. Nearly 80 hail from Iran, and 15 come from Syria.

"The university touts itself as this leader in the academic world, having a global vision, so I think they need to stand with students who might be affected," said Suzanne Young, a graduate student at USF and an organizer of Monday's rally. "It's too important not to. It's too urgent not to."

The rally started with about 100 participants, but their ranks soon swelled as the diverse crowd sang This Land Is Your Land.

"Am I not a human being? Are Muslims not human beings?" Ahmad Hussan, a 26-year-old USF graduate, shouted to the crowd. Later, he said Genshaft's silence amounted to saying, "You don't matter to me."

"She needs to get her act together, and I say that with as much respect as I can," Hussan said.

Students cheered as sociology professor Elizabeth Aranda took a megaphone. Any ban on immigration needs to be grounded in empirical facts, not fear, Aranda warned, lest history repeat itself.

"Banning refugees is a stain on our country," she said.

Zohreh Nemati, an Iranian-born researcher and USF adjunct professor here on a visa, has watched with dismay as the order has deferred her friends' dreams and clouded her own future with uncertainty.

She said one of her Iranian friends, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at USF, went home to visit family and planned to return to defend his dissertation. He got an email Thursday saying his visa was ready to pick up.

But on Monday, his visa was "refused" on the U.S. Department of State's website, presumably because of Trump's order, Nemati said.

Nemati, 35, graduated from USF last fall. She hoped to get a green card this year and visit her parents, whom she hasn't seen in five years. But now she and a friend are thinking about applying for citizenship in Canada.

"I wanted to build my life here, but I don't know what the situation is going to be and we cannot have an unstable life," she said. "I'll go somewhere they want me."

Monday's rally restored some of her hope, she said.

Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected]