Yasmine Bahrani is a professor of journalism at American University in Dubai.
The month of May is graduation time here in Dubai, too. The seniors at the university where I teach happily toss their mortarboards into the air and pose for selfies, as seniors do annually. But this year something is different: When I ask the new grads where they will go for their summer internships or jobs or even vacations, I’m hearing much more uncertainty than in years past. One Emirati student told me he had to cancel his plans to travel to the United States. “Most of us can’t get visas to the U.S.,” he said. Another Emirati said she’ll probably go to Britain because her plans for a summer internship in New York fell through when she could not get a visa. London is hardly a consolation prize, but why deny these students a chance to visit the United States?
Mind you, the United Arab Emirates is not on the list of six countries whose nationals are the focus of the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban (and even that ban is in limbo as it makes its way through the U.S. courts). But I also have a student from Syria — which is on the list, along with Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen — who was accepted by a U.S. graduate school but cannot get to it. Students also told me that, ban or no ban, their visas were denied or the response to their requests took so long that they gave up. These students weren’t seeking H1-B work visas; they wanted just to study. Now they’re taking a last-minute look at Britain and Canada. One Syrian student told me with relief that she was accepted to Carleton University in Ottawa to study journalism. She’s one of the lucky ones.
It’s not just students who are facing this difficulty. A family I know here had been granted visas by the U.S. Consulate in Dubai. But their attempt to attend a wedding in Indianapolis was blocked at the airport. A U.S. consular officer in Abu Dhabi canceled the visas on their passports and prevented them from boarding the plane. Why? The family told me they weren’t given a reason, but they believe it was because their British passports indicate they were born in Iraq. Iraq is no longer on the list of targeted countries.
The incident, according to the mother, was “inexplicable.” Still, the parents remained polite, trying to retain their dignity even as they were being humiliated. Their son, however, a man in his 20s, gave way to his fury and swore angrily at the visa officer. I suspect the son’s outrage is the more common reaction to these travel frustrations. Certainly, these problems have changed some people’s views about the United States. Some who had otherwise positive views now curse the country as racist. At a minimum, others swear bitterly they will never visit the United States again.
Anyone can understand the need to protect Americans from potential terrorists, but the trade-off here is costly: In exchange for the possibility of barring those who might intend harm, the United States is making detractors out of people who want to be friends.
My own students are good examples. “What do I have to do with terrorism?” those in my classroom ask. The students have demonstrated repeatedly during our lively discussions that they dream of a liberal society for the Middle East, one that resembles the United States. They admire the freedom that the United States grants its citizens, which is one reason that they Westernize themselves: They dress in ripped jeans, know the words to the songs of Beyoncé and Drake, and even keep up with the Kardashians.
Young as they are, they understand as well that some of the most outspoken defenders of Muslims in the United States right now are Christians and Jews. But they perceive the government as problematic. They are asking whether the United States has a problem with all Arabs and Muslims. The keynote speaker at this month’s graduation ceremony was Donald Trump Jr., who urged the seniors to dare to follow their dreams. What if their dreams involve learning opportunities in the United States?
Is it wise to prevent exactly the kind of people who should be engaging with the West from visiting? Why are Emiratis who are studying at an American campus in the Gulf having trouble getting U.S. visas? Why are Iraqi-born British citizens having their visas canceled? It isn’t just Muslims facing this issue. I know a family of Iraqi Christians who have been waiting for their U.S. immigration visas for years. Why? They were told just to wait. What kind of risk has been avoided by delaying entry year after year to a family of four Christians?
In our classroom discussions, my students have been pleased to learn that in the United States, anyone can express his or her opinion. They’ve learned that anyone can freely practice any faith. They’ve learned that gay people can marry. My students see the United States as a cool country, which is why they wish to know it better, why they want to visit. Last Sunday, President Trump may have spoken of “friendship and hope” between the United States and the Middle East in his address in Saudi Arabia, but these new graduates have just been presented with a lesson about the United States that I wish they hadn’t had to learn at all.