Open Letter to President Trump Advocating Education Exemption From Immigration Ban



February 1, 2017

Dear President Trump,

Please carve out an education exemption from your executive order of January 27, 2017, entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (the “Order”).  An education exemption will remove the unforeseen stress currently placed on the U.S. higher education system, while still adhering to the objectives of the Order.  I believe that it is in the country’s best interest to create an exemption for students and scholars currently impacted by the Order.

Our Competitive Advantage

For nearly a century, U.S. universities have been a magnet for the best and brightest of the world’s scientists, entrepreneurs, students and scholars, which has given us a core competitive advantage in countless fields.  Many of the world’s most impactful scientific and medical breakthroughs have happened on U.S. campuses with the help of talented foreign-born people.  Whether it’s the advancements created in physics by Albert Einstein, in pharmacology by Otto Loewi, in molecular biology by Max Bergmann, or in technology by Sergey Brin and Elon Musk, to name just a few, our universities have benefitted greatly from foreign-born students and scholars.

Yahoo, Facebook and Google were all started on college campuses with at least one of the founders being born outside the U.S. All six 2016 Nobel Prize winners in the areas of chemistry, physics and economics were foreign-born.  (Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, was the only one born in the U.S., and he wasn’t affiliated with a University.)  In fact, 31% of all U.S. Nobel Laureates from 1901 to 2015 were born outside the U.S.

Getting the best and brightest people around the world to come here as students and scholars has given us a leading edge in virtually every industry from technology to medicine.  The Order, however, is threatening our competitive advantage and our standing.  Universities around the country are worried that the uncertainty created by the Order is jeopardizing critical research and collaborative work on medicine, engineering, and public health that have been in the works for years between the U.S. and scholars from the seven countries.  If scholars from the seven countries are prevented from coming to the U.S., countries who compete with the U.S. and also recognize the value of collaborative works with scholars worldwide will happily snap up these scholars and work with them, thus enriching their country.  We also stand to lose scholars from other Muslim-majority countries not currently on the Order, who may feel nervous about their welcome here, and lose our edge.

Education is Big Business

The U.S. has benefitted immensely not just from the brain trust brought by foreign-born students and scholars, but also from the revenues generated from them.

International students are crucial to the U.S. college system.  Having the brightest minds here has helped the U.S. to be a leader in higher education worldwide, with students all over the world clamoring for a spot at U.S. universities.  These students receive little to no financial aid and pay higher tuition, making them a significant source of revenue for both public and private universities, and therefore the U.S. economy.  According to the U.S. Commerce ­Department, college students from overseas contributed more than $35 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015.  Our economy, and the U.S. education system, cannot afford to lose that revenue.  Loss of revenue from foreign students will exert further upward pressure on tuition, which would be catastrophic given the $1.3 trillion in outstanding U.S. student debt and $30,000 average individual student debt.

Uncertainty Created by the Order is Putting U.S. Higher Education at Risk

The uncertainty created by the Order in the past few days is jeopardizing the continued ability of U.S. universities to attract foreign-born students and scholars.  Over the past few days, there have been all sorts of reported incidents of students and scholars stranded in their home country or elsewhere.  Some of them are in the middle of conducting important research in the areas of medicine, science, technology and so on.   

Added to this uncertainty is the inconsistent enforcement of the Order and the inconsistent advice given by schools and lawyers trying to interpret the Order and predict what will happen next.  Some schools are advising all foreign-born students to rethink their travel outside the U.S.  While the Order on its face may only impact the estimated 17,000 to 20,000 students and scholars from the 7 listed countries, it has already had a chilling effect on students and scholars from other countries with a Muslim majority.  Immigration lawyers are advising clients with visas from any Muslim-majority country (even from countries outside the scope of the Order) not to travel outside the U.S., because they are unsure if the Order will be expanded.

The uncertainty and fear that the scope of the Order may expand is also leading Muslim students and scholars from other Muslim-majority countries to explore other options for their higher education needs.  Their concern is justified as the Order provides that “the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Homeland Security may submit to the President the names of any additional countries recommended for similar treatment.”

Our Loss will be Other Countries’ Gain

The competition for the world’s best and brightest students and scholars is no different than an arms race, with the U.S. competing and currently winning the race.  Just this morning, it was reported by World University Rankings that nearly a quarter of the top 500 universities measured for their international community and outlook are here in the U.S.  

We compete against countries like Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore, the UK, Australia and Canada, and they are eager to take the world’s best and brightest students from the U.S.  They all have figured out ways to protect their borders while attracting the best and brightest.  In the past few days alone, I have seen numerous signs of other countries, including Canada and Australia, stepping up their game to take advantage of the increased uncertainty created by the Order.

Canada has made it very clear that they will take in refugees stranded by the Order.  The University of British Columbia has already funded a task force with an initial budget of $250,000 “to determine what assistance the university can offer those affected.”  While condemning the Order, they make it clear that they will welcome students and researchers from anywhere.  

Australia has also jumped in to fill in the vacuum.  For example, in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, the author notes as follows:

Australia’s biggest competitor for the best talent on earth is in a bit of trouble. And when your main competitor is in trouble, what do you do? You drive home your advantage.”

“Taking advantage of Trump rather than impotently lecturing him is by far the better course for Australia. We can tend to our national interest while offering a better alternative to the best and brightest.

Exemption for Education

I understand that the Order was not intended to be an assault on the U.S. higher education system, but if provisions are not made immediately to maintain the status quo for the students and scholars who have been adversely impacted by the Order, history will remember it that way.  As such, I call upon your Administration to exclude students and scholars from the scope of the Order by:

  1. Modifying the Order to specifically clarify that students and scholars from countries impacted by the Order, who have valid Visas and Other Immigration Benefits in the U.S. can stay in the country, as provided by the terms of their current Visas; and
  2. Resuming the issuance of Visas and Other Immigration Benefits to students and scholars for the countries impacted by the Order.

I leave you with this quote from Ronald Reagan’s Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy, July 30, 1981:

“Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”


Peter Corrigan, CEO
The University Network (TUN)

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