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Court delay of Trump travel ban doesn't help USF student in Iran

?Mehdi Zeyghami, seen in front of a University of South Florida solar power plant, was in the process of finishing his Ph.D. [Courtesy of ?Mehdi Zeyghami]
?Mehdi Zeyghami, seen in front of a University of South Florida solar power plant, was in the process of finishing his Ph.D. [Courtesy of ?Mehdi Zeyghami]
Published Feb. 8, 2017

Mehdi Zeyghami boarded a plane in Tehran, Iran, on Monday with a glimmer of hope that he would soon make it back to the University of South Florida to finish his doctoral degree.

After a federal judge temporarily blocked key parts of President Donald Trump's executive order barring travel from Iran and six other countries, the 34-year-old Iranian national hoped he could pick up the student visa approved late last month before the order cancelled it.

He flew to the U.S. embassy in neighboring Armenia and waited about 15 minutes before a clerk dashed his hopes: Because his visa had been approved but not issued, it was still in "refused" status. He would have to reapply, starting over a process that takes months.

"I was so shocked and devastated," Zeyghami said Tuesday in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "I was so hopeful again to receive my visa after the judge ruling, but now I feel helpless."

To make matters worse, USF has suspended Zeyghami's access to its servers because he is in Iran. Existing sanctions laws that are unrelated to Trump's travel ban prohibit the university from providing services to countries classified as under embargo by the federal government.

"These sanctions prohibit any student in Iran from accessing USF servers or other institutional resources without federal permission," José L. Zayas-Castro, associate dean of USF's College of Engineering, told Zeyghami in an email. He added that USF officials were "actively reviewing ways in which the university can assist you."

Student privacy laws prevent school officials from discussing Zeyghami's case, USF spokesman Adam Freeman said in a statement Tuesday.

"USF works closely with students to provide the necessary resources to complete their degrees and pursue their career goals, while operating within the requirements of state and federal laws," Freeman said.

The freeze means Zeyghami, who came to USF on a student visa in 2012 and went home last May to be with his mother as she recovered from heart surgery, has no way to access his research on passive cooling technology.

Yogi. D. Goswami, a distinguished professor of chemical engineering and director of USF's Clean Energy Research Center, told the Times last month that the university would work to determine if it's possible for him to finish his work from a remote location if he can't make it back to the United States. It might not be possible without access to the specialized equipment at the research center, Goswami said at the time.

Without access to USF's servers, it's impossible, Zeyghami said Tuesday.

"I do not have my writings and results anywhere except the USF servers," he said. "It is impossible that I can finish without having access to my files, email account and computer."

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Zeyghami now worries he won't be able to return at all because he has already twice extended his I-20 certificate, a document issued by the Department of Homeland of Security allowing foreign students to study in America.

Zeyghami is a casualty of the order that pauses America's entire refugee program for four months, bans all those from war-ravaged Syria indefinitely, and suspends for 90 days any travel to the United States from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The president says the order will protect the United States from terrorists. Critics call it an unconstitutional overreach.

Zeyghami's case number popped up on the U.S. Consulate's website on Jan. 27 confirming that his visa was ready. He booked a flight to pick it up at the U.S. Embassy in Armenia because there is no embassy in Iran.

But he never made the trip. On Jan. 28, Trump signed the executive order. Two days later, Zeyghami received an email saying his visa had been refused. It cited the order, 212(f).

Attorneys general in Washington and Minnesota have filed a lawsuit, arguing that the travel ban targets Muslims and violates constitutional rights of immigrants and their families. Judge James L. Robart, a federal judge in Seattle, granted a temporary, nationwide restraining order allowing immigrants and travelers who had been barred from entry to come to the United States.

A final ruling on the order is expected to be weeks away.

Zeyghami said has heard reports of the U.S. Embassy in Dubai issuing visas that had been approved but not issued before the order was signed. That raises questions about inconsistent responses to the injunction.

A U.S. State Department spokesman would not comment Tuesday on whether some embassies are delivering visas that had been approved but not issued before Trump's order. On Wednesday, a department spokesman said any applicants refused during the implementation of the order will be required to submit a new application.

One specialist in immigration law, assistant professor Kari Hong at Boston College, said that once Judge Robart granted the injunction, the State Department should have picked up where it left off and granted visas to travelers whose applications had already been approved.

"In my good faith reading of the Seattle injunction, this student and all similarly situated students should be able to enter the United States," Hong said.

Zeyghami said his backup plan if he can't make it back to USF is to look for a university in Europe or Canada where he can finish his work.

If not, he said, "I will try to finish in one of the Iranian universities, if it is possible."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.