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More Iranian Students are Being Turned Away at Airports, Universities are Worried

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Students from Iran are being approved for student visas to come to the U.S. and study at universities. When they leave Iran, they believe they are coming to the U.S. and will be studying for a better future.

When their flight lands in the U.S., they are confronted by immigration officials telling them to get on a flight back to Iran, a flight they were never expected to take.

Throughout the U.S., reports of authorities detaining and deporting Iranian students at U.S. airports are on the rise. On Monday, a 27-year-old engineer who was approved and given a student visa to study at Michigan State University was deported from the Detroit Metro Airport as soon as his flight landed. Last week, a 24-year-old who was accepted to Northeastern University and had a student visa in hand was escorted onto a returning flight in Boston.

For the students, its confusing and devastating as Immigration officials approve of their visas only to deport them as soon as they arrive. For immigrant advocates, it's a new pattern emerging as tensions run high between the U.S. and Iran. For American universities expecting these students to arrive, it's causing concern that this will discourage the world's top students from studying in their classrooms.

"Campuses are much more worried about what happens at the port of entry than they used to be because it is so unpredictable and so apparently random," says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, "It used to be that you would breathe a sigh of a relief when your international student got their visa. Now you breathe a sigh of relief when they get to campus."

US Customs and Border Protection argued that its inspections take additional factors into account and can uncover details that didn't come up in the visa application process.

The agency stated "there is no guarantee that someone with a valid visa will be allowed to enter the United States".

Immigration lawyers say the situation has been far from usual, and very different from what they normally see. "Something's different now," says Ali Rahnama, legislative counsel for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans. "Deportation of this number of students is not normal."

At least 17 Iranian students have been deported from the U.S. since August after arriving with valid student visas. It's an alarming increase from previous years, as only one or two cases like this would happen annually.

Of the 17 Iranian students, 11 of them were deported from Boston's Logan International Airport.

Carol Rose says the trend is clear. But the reasons behind it, she says, remain a mystery.

"We don't know whether this is a decision by the Boston CBP office, or whether this is a decision coming from the Trump administration, because it's all being done in secret," says Rose, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "Maybe it's because we have a lot of students coming, because we're a center of higher education. Or it may well be there's just a decision by some rogue agents here who have a personal dislike for people from Iran. We just simply don't know."

This trend is putting many U.S. Universities and International Student Advisors to worry.

International Student Advisor Mr. Hartle spoke out about the unrest in university staff. "The number of international students, after increasing steadily for a decade, has leveled off in the United States," he says. "We think the reason is because America is simply seen as less welcoming than it used to be to international visitors."

The uptick in students being turned back is weighing on universities, Hartle said, even though -- relatively speaking -- it's rare. According to the latest government statistics, there are more than 1 million international students in the United States, and more than 12,000 of them are Iranian.

And it's not only Iranians who've been affected. Some students from other countries have also been turned back in recent months, Hartle says, such as a group of Chinese students who were heading to Arizona State University in September.

"We're worried about the environment for international students," Hartle says. "We're worried about any student, whether they are from Iran, China or Germany. It doesn't matter."
Schools, Hartle says, struggle to advise students as the situation shifts.

"It's hard to know how best to advise students, except to say, 'When you get to the port of entry, anything can happen.' And that's not the message that we would like to send to international students. We want to be open and welcoming."

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