An MIT mechanical engineering student from Iran was among those barred from the United States on Saturday by President Trump’s travel ban, prompting an outcry from the MIT community and thrusting the woman into a fiery national debate.
Niki Mossafer Rahmati, a junior who has a multiple entry student visa, had been trying to return to MIT after winter break but was blocked from boarding her connecting flight from Qatar, along with about 30 other Iranians, she wrote on Facebook.
“This will not secure the borders from terrorism and illegal immigrants. It will only increase racism in the American society,” she wrote. “The president is trying to make Islamophobia a norm and policy by which he wants to lead the country. There has not been a single terrorist activity from those 7 countries listed above, in the US.”
A member of Sigma Kappa sorority, Rahmati is executive vice president of the MIT Panhellenic Association and volunteers with Camp Kesem, an organization for children whose parents have cancer, according to a Facebook page launched by her supporters, called “Bring Niki Back.”
Her friends and sorority sisters held her up as an active member of the community and launched a phone bank to Congress and an online petition demanding that she be allowed to return.
They also reached out to Democratic US Senator Elizabeth Warren, who cited Rahmati’s story, among others, on the floor of the Senate Monday night as she challenged the notion that the travel ban would make America safer.
“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. “Most of them have already been vetted and granted the right to come to America.”
Trump’s executive order, signed late Friday, puts a temporary moratorium on travel from seven countries while encouraging an effort to tighten the country’s screening of potential terrorists. But confusion has reigned since the weekend, with contradictory messages from the administration about how people with valid green cards would be handled. And even after the travel ban was halted by a one-week stay in the courts on Saturday, some people were still being blocked from returning to the United States, news organizations have reported.
In speaking of Rahmati in the Senate, Warren said that she was denied travel to the United states a second time on Sunday — even after a stay had been imposed by the court.
An MIT spokesman confirmed that Rahmati is a student affected by the travel ban. The university’s president had not previously mentioned her name but had told alumni and members of the school community in a Monday message that he was working to help two undergraduates who were barred from the United States.
MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, noted that the university is broadly international, with more than 40 percent of the faculty, 40 percent of graduate students, and 10 percent of undergraduates coming from outside the United States.
“The Executive Order on Friday appeared to me a stunning violation of our deepest American values, the values of a nation of immigrants: fairness, equality, openness, generosity, courage,” Reif wrote. “The Statue of Liberty is the “Mother of Exiles”; how can we slam the door on desperate refugees? Religious liberty is a founding American value; how can our government discriminate against people of any religion?”
He also encouraged people to work “constructively” to remedy the situation and to acknowledge that “there are people of goodwill who see the measures in the Executive Order as a reasonable path to make the country safer,” though he added, “I am convinced that the Executive Order will make us less safe.”