Frequent travel abroad is part of his job as a faculty member in electrical engineering and computer science at Yale University; he is expected to attend conferences, learn from others and present his research on artificial intelligence.
Then President Trump signed an executive order Friday that, among other things, temporarily barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, from entering the United States.
“I’m establishing a new vetting measure to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” Trump said when he signed it. “We don’t want them here. We want to make sure we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas.”
Karbasi was stunned. “I never thought such a thing would happen,” he said.
The measure was welcomed by many Americans who saw it as an overdue means to tighten border security and ensure more careful screening of people from countries with extremists, a way to prevent infiltration by enemies. But the sudden change alarmed many others, who filed legal challenges, staged protests and warned that the order ran counter to fundamental American values.
National higher education leaders warned of the impact it could have on research and competitiveness.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, Gillian Christensen, responded to those concerns, writing, in part: “The United States has the world’s most generous immigration system, yet it has been repeatedly exploited by terrorists and other malicious actors who seek to do us harm. … In order to protect Americans, and to advance the national interest, the United States must ensure that those entering this country will not harm the American people subsequent to their entry, and that they do not bear malicious intent toward the United States and its people. The Executive Order protects the United States from countries compromised by terrorism and ensures a more rigorous vetting process. … We will treat all of those we encounter humanely and with professionalism.”
She added, “Under the recent guidance from the White House, we will continue to ensure that lawful permanent residents are processed through our borders efficiently. Under that guidance, the Executive Order issued Friday does not apply to their entry to the United States.”
Prashant Shenoy, a computer science professor at the University of Massachusetts who works on building devices that track medical conditions such as seizures to help patients improve their health, said his students from Iran are very worried about their ability to travel and collaborate with other researchers. “But the broader impact is yet to be seen in terms of our ability to recruit top students,” he said. “Whether they come from the U.S. or elsewhere, we are always open to hiring the best and the brightest, and we are really worried this will discourage international students from applying here,” despite the long-standing reputation of the United States as an elite destination for research and education.
“They will feel the U.S. is no longer a welcome place to come and pursue graduate studies, and the impact on graduate programs could be substantial.”
On Friday night, Karbasi wrote on social media that the fear that his wife and baby might not be able to re-enter the United States “eats me alive.”
As a legal permanent resident, he is in a much more secure position than the 17,000 people here on student visas in 2015, the vast majority of them Iranians, from the seven targeted countries.
But with shifting messages — first green-card holders were included, then they were not — he anxiously read the news and searched for information about how to apply for a waiver. Lawyers advised him to wait and see, as it was not yet clear, exactly, what would happen.
“So we are in limbo,” he said.
The United States has been everything he had hoped, growing up in Tehran, and as an undergraduate in Switzerland. An elite university supporting his research, colleagues who are smart and humble and collaborative, excellent students in the classroom. “That had been my dream,” he said. “It had come true.”
The problem, he has found, is that, “by a signature, that can change.”
Already, he is getting job offers from universities in Europe and Canada.
Big data is an important topic now, he said. Many places are eager for top scholars in the field.
Unlike some professors, his research is easy to transfer. “It’s mathematics, right? It’s in my head and the heads of my students and my colleagues.”
“Science is something extremely international,” he added. “You cannot confine it.”
“I have collaborators in Europe — collaborators in Canada — collaborators in the U.S. Step by step, we are trying to push the boundaries. You need a place to be very supportive so you can flourish. Yale has provided that space for me.”
He knows he is one of the lucky ones: He has support. He has a green card. He has legal advice.
“I hope the situation is resolved, not only for me, for the many people who were trapped,” he said. “For the mothers, children, fathers who had nowhere else to go. Who waited two years to be admitted as refugees, who suddenly, 10 feet away, that’s the last 10 feet they have to go, and they cannot.”
He’s worried, but he has hope. “I am trusting the American people,” he said. “I don’t think this is what this country represents.”
For a year and a half, Karbasi and his wife, Marjan, lived with students in one of Yale’s residential colleges. “I know Americans as being very open and kind,” he said. “This has been my constant experience with them: Very open, very supportive of others.”
As he saw lawyers rush to airports over the weekend and protests erupt after the order was signed, he felt faith that the situation would change. “I do not think the U.S. is the government,” he said. “The U.S. I know is about people. Given these days, the kind of support I have received from people,” of all backgrounds, all faiths. “A father sending me an email that their 3-year-old daughter, they prayed for us — these are the people we can connect to, right?
“I believe in these people.”
He does not want to leave the United States.
But the answer will come in a month, he said. “We have a hard deadline.”
Many universities have advised their students and faculty members from the countries in question to avoid travel outside of the United States until the temporary ban is lifted, even those with green cards.
But Karbasi had planned to fly back to Iran in a month and then travel home with his wife and daughter.
He still wants to go, despite the unknowns, because of the unknowns.
“I cannot leave the possibility of them alone coming to the border and being denied entry and don’t know what to do next, at the airport and not sure what to do next. Having a 7-month-old baby on your lap 24 hours” on a plane, he said, and being told upon landing, “your husband is 10 feet away and you cannot see your husband.”
So he will go. “Either we will be able to get in or —”
He paused. “Or that’s it — right?”’