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University students left in limbo by Trump's travel ban

Bernard Weil | Toronto Star | Getty Images

President Donald Trump's travel ban, which triggered days of chaos before being dealt a blow in the courts that effectively suspended its execution, still has thousands of immigrant students stranded in a state of limbo.

After a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the immigration order, which imposed travel restrictions on citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries linked to terrorism, Trump vowed to issue a new executive order that could come as early as next week.

With the world watching for Trump's latest moves, international students who hail from the countries affected by the ban are on tenterhooks, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"I hope the ban is not extended beyond the 90-days period" said Mostafa Afkhamizadeh, a PhD candidate from Stanford University who was initially banned from coming back to California when traveling from his native Iran.

Afkhamizadeh traveled to his home country on January 19th, but was held up by Trump's executive order. He now finds himself trying to get back, much like thousands of other U.S. green card and visa holders who found their ability to travel was curtailed by the original ban.

"I'm mostly concerned about further policy changes or a revised executive orders during my visa process" the engineering student said to CNBC recently, who is waiting for a visa appointment in March. If Trump issues a new order that is upheld, "I will most likely terminate my doctoral program."

More than 1 million strong

Trump's immigration ban impacted more than 16,600 students in the U.S., according to figures from the Institute of International Education, a vital pool of talent that boosts economic activity in ways both large and small.

The more than 1 million international students living domestically contribute nearly $33 billion to the U.S. economy, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The majority graduate to become professionals, researchers and innovators for U.S. employers. They make up more than 70 percent of graduate students in electrical engineering and computer science and support more than 400,000 jobs in the U.S., according to NAFSA data.

That group includes Abdallah, a Palestinian computer science student in California who spoke to CNBC recently, but asked not to share his full name. Like many students, Abdallah voiced concerns about whether he'd be allowed to continue his studies.

"The future is very uncertain, and we don't know whether the ban is going to expand, or people from other Muslim majority countries are going to suffer" with tighter restrictions being extended to other countries, Abdallah told CNBC.

Susan Cohen, chair of the immigration practice at the Mintz Levin law firm told CNBC that "everyone who is here on a visa should consult a competent immigration lawyer before leaving the country," even if their home country was not on Trump's executive order.

Cohen is working with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which hosts about 2,000 international students and scholars. When the travel ban took effect, MIT students were returning to school from winter break.

Niki Rahmati, one MIT junior studying mechanical engineering, was not allowed to board her connecting flight in Qatar to get to Boston. When the ban was lifted, Niki returned to MIT on February 3, along with four other banned MIT researchers and students.

Another MIT engineering student, Amna Magzoub, a dual citizen of Sudan and the United States is hopeful that her parents will make it to graduation. "There's not much I can do on the legal front and that's where the battle is now," she told CNBC.

Last week, seventeen universities with a collective $193 billion in endowment funds filed a lawsuit against President Trump because of the travel ban. The suit argued that a travel ban "threatens that ability and creates significant hardship for...valued international students, faculty, and scholars."

The Department of Justice declined to comment to CNBC regarding the pending court litigation, while the White House did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

According to Derrick Bolton, the Dean of Stanford University's Knight-Hennessy Scholars Admissions, two-thirds of the program's scholars are expected to be international students in the first inaugural year.

"The immigration ban would do more harm than good," said John Hennessy, the co-founder of the scholarship, to CNBC.

Trump's action has drawn bipartisan criticism. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren railed against the ban on the floor of the Senate. "None of these people are criminals. None of these people are threats. They're students at some of the world's top universities," Warren said in January.

Separately, Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State under former president George W. Bush, said the executive order restricting immigration was "ill-considered and even badly delivered," according to a report in Politico. Rice told a Silicon Valley audience that "I was the National Security Adviser on 9/11. The day after 9/11, we closed our borders and thought that we were more secure. That turned out to be a mistake."

The immigration order unleashed a wave of protests, even as Trump defends the need to restrict movement from countries the U.S. government considers high risk. Still, the raw emotion surrounding the issue showed no signs of abating.

"I find this ban deeply hurtful and harmful, as it targets the most vulnerable of our global community," said Banen Al-Sheemary, a former Iraqi refugee who recently graduated from the University of Michigan.

Correction: This story has been revised to reflect that NAFSA is known as the Association of International Educators.