March 22, 2018

Academic Libraries Respond to Immigration Ban

Update: On February 4, Chase Robinson, president of the City University of New York Graduate Center, received word confirming that Saira Rafiee has been granted re-entry to the United States and will soon be returning to the Graduate Center.

 Photo credit: Kristin "Shoe" Shoemaker via Flickr

Photo credit: Kristin “Shoe” Shoemaker via Flickr

On the afternoon of Friday, January 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order placing a 90-day entry ban on immigrants and visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the United States. Travelers, visa holders, and refugees from those Muslim-majority countries were stopped and detained at airports in the United States and abroad, and in a number of cases sent back overseas. Holders of green cards were initially detained as well, but on January 29 that portion of the restriction was lifted (although they will still need to request a waiver to gain reentry to the United States). The ban affects U.S. students and professors among others, stranding those traveling abroad. Academic organizations across the country have condemned the order and urged Trump to reverse it, joining the voices of citizen protesters nationwide.

Academic libraries and associations across the country were quick to issue statements critical of the order, citing the well-being of their campus communities and the potential loss of talent and resources as a result of shutting out some of the best scholars, researchers, authors, and faculty working in the United States who hold foreign citizenship. “In the weeks and months to come we in higher education will be called upon to make a set of principled stands,” wrote Joshua Kim in Inside Higher Ed. “We would do well to learn from our academic library colleagues how they have stood up to unreasonable government requests and the pressures of popular opinion. We would do well to understand how academic librarians have put values at the center of all their policies and actions.”


“We oppose actions used to suppress free expression, academic freedom, and intellectual freedom in academe and condemn the use of intimidation, harassment, bans on entry to the United States from Muslim-majority countries, and violence as means with which to squelch free intellectual inquiry and expression,” the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) wrote in a January 30 statement. “Together our distinct identities and beliefs reflect the richness of our global society.”

In a joint statement from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), the organizations cited the historical precedent of worldwide scholarship as well as humanitarianism: “The work we do—particularly the books we publish and collect—illuminates the past and sheds new light on current conversations; informed by this work we believe that the rationale for the ban both ignores history and places assumptions ahead of facts. More importantly, this decision will greatly harm some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. The United States should not turn its back on refugees who are fleeing their war-torn homes and have already endured long, extensive screening procedures in the relocation process.”

The two associations urged President Trump to rescind the order or for congress to intervene on behalf of those affected.

The international writers’ free speech organization PEN America also cited its ongoing work for freedom of expression, in particular its battles against the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which sought to exclude writers on the basis of their political beliefs. After a sustained lobbying effort by PEN and other organizations, the act was amended in 1990 to eliminate the ideological exclusion provision.

In a statement, PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel wrote, “Excluding people from the United States purely on the basis of what they think and believe is unconstitutional and would evoke a dark chapter in our history. Amid a rising tide of isolationism, PEN America will fight to keep the flow of ideas and information between the U.S. and the rest of the world open, resisting any attempt to exclude individuals based on ideology.”

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), in a February 1 statement, cited last year’s United Nations’ New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, as well as the 2003 International Migration Convention, which provides the right to temporary absence from the country of residence. IFLA stated that the policy would affect students, workers, academics, and their families: “All [of whom]  use libraries to generate new ideas and perspectives which will benefit social, economic and cultural life. The policy also adversely affects refugees fleeing extreme poverty, persecution and conflict. Libraries’ doors are open to help them find support and encouragement to learn the language and develop the skills needed to find their place. Focusing on successful integration, rather than rejection, will produce the scholars, artists, workers and engaged citizens of tomorrow.”


“While temporary, the ban will have a long-term chilling effect on free academic inquiry,” stated ARL and AAUP. “This order sends a clear message to researchers, scholars, authors, and students that the United States is not an open and welcoming place in which to live and study, conduct research, write, and hold or attend conferences and symposia. The ban will disrupt and undermine international academic collaboration in the sciences, the humanities, technology, and global health.”

Some faculty members have called for a boycott of U.S.-based academic conferences in response to the order, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. While such action would not necessarily have much impact on U.S. academic library conferences, which do not traditionally attract a large international audience, it would have reverberations throughout the scholarly community.

“It is vital to our economy and the national interest that we continue to attract the best students, scientists, engineers, and scholars,” stated the Association of American Universities in a press release. The statement added, on a note of caution, “Other countries have set the goal of surpassing the United States as the global leader in higher education, research, and innovation. Allowing them to replace this country as the prime destination for the most talented students and researchers would cause irreparable damage, and help them to achieve their goal of global leadership.”

The Society of American Archivists noted in a statement that “this executive order may prevent international archival researchers, students, and staff from traveling to and from the United States; subject international archival researchers to intrusive screenings of their private information; intimidate marginalized communities from preserving and sharing their archival records; or disrupt the lives and work of archivists and archival students and faculty who are green card holders.”

For now, many educators and students are putting non-emergency travel plans on hold. On January 31, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries released a statement that read in part, “While the MIT Libraries will not restrict Libraries-funded foreign travel, we will not require anyone to travel outside the United States on Libraries business or on Libraries-funded activity until all members of our community are once again free to travel outside the United States.”


Library educators are making their voices heard as well. The Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE), in a statement on its website, wrote that the organization “reiterates its unwavering support for diversity and international perspectives in the education and representation of library and information professionals in the United States, regardless of country of origin. We are a global community of students, professionals, educators, and scholars who benefit society through our diverse experiences and perspectives. We also wish to reiterate our support for our library and information science education colleagues in all affected nations.”

David Lankes, director of the University of South Carolina (USC) School of Library and Information Science, responded to USC vice provost Paul Allen Miller’s message to international students on January 28. Lankes stated, in part, “I am saddened beyond belief that any university official has to advise those with legal standing to ‘not leave the country.’ The heart of academia is the free flow of ideas. Ideas know no borders. A search for truth, and a quest to improve society through knowledge should never be threatened by executive order, or legislation. The freedom to teach and learn without the fear of deportation or xenophobia is not a partisan issue; it is not about being liberal or conservative; it is about human rights.”

Lankes continued, “Every day in our classes people of all faiths and religions—Muslim, Jew, Christian, Atheist—learn side by side. Americans, Iranians, Brazilians, Chinese, Indians, Germans, Ugandans have shaped the prosperity of this school, university, and nation. Our graduates build communities in libraries and institutions across the world. We teach all of our students the core values of intellectual honesty, equity, and respect for diversity. We must now demonstrate these values. We have long called libraries havens and must now put truth to these words.”

The current political mood has spilled over into the classroom, said Debbie Rabina, professor at the Pratt Institute School of Information (SI), New York. “There is really no discussion in class, whether formally or informally, that does not lead to a discussion of recent events,” she told LJ. “Never before, when we would talk in class about census data, would students so immediately get both the value of it and the real possibility that it might disappear. Never before were students this curious about the laws the govern information collection, retention, and dissemination by the federal government. [They were] never this interested about the funding structures of the grants that pay for their fellowships or employment, and never this ready to ask questions about everything.”

Rabina led a Manhattan-based effort to preserve government website information in December, and has involved her students as well. As the coordinator of the Pratt SI Libraries and Academic/Research Contexts concentration, she noted that “If ever there was a teaching moment, it is this one,” adding, “but the price is too high.”

Protest against immigration ban at Virginia Commonwealth University Photo credit:

Protest against immigration ban at Virginia Commonwealth University
Photo credit: Quidster4040 via Wikimedia Commons


At the City University of New York (CUNY) alone, the action had the potential to affect some 120 students, and on Friday Saira Rafiee, an Iranian citizen and political science doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, was forbidden to board a plane from Abu Dhabi en route from Iran to New York. Rafiee was detained for nearly 18 hours, and finally allowed to fly back to Tehran. She is still barred from reentry to the United States.

“It is difficult to imagine a U.S. government purposely disrupting the projects of intellectual exchange and open inquiry,” Polly Thistlethwaite, chief librarian at the CUNY Graduate Center, told LJ. “The entire first week of Republican-led oppressive measures suggests that librarians must ‘stay woke’ and respond rapidly and clearly to the likely further incursions this administration and this congress will make upon its citizens.”

In a Facebook post Rafiee wrote, “As a student of sociology and political science, I have devoted a major part of my scholarly life to the study of authoritarianism. The media has published enough statistics during the past few days to show how irrelevant this order is to the fight against terrorism. It is time to call things by their true names; this is Islamophobia, racism, fascism. We, the 99% of the world, need to stand united in resisting the authoritarian forces all over the world.”

CUNY Graduate Center president Chase F. Robinson and provost Joy Connolly said in a January 30 statement: “Once we learned of Saira’s situation, we contacted her and began gathering support and coordinating a response in partnership with the Central Office. We continue to work to facilitate her return to New York, and we will continue to advocate on behalf of all international scholars, students and employees for immigration and visa policies that will sustain their security and success in the United States.”

Robinson and Connolly also urged students and faculty to consult the CUNY Citizenship Now! webpage for immigration law resources.

Many other academic leaders spoke up to give concrete assistance from their institutions, libraries, and campuses. Among them, in a January 29 statement Hunter Rawlings, interim president of Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, was explicit as to how Cornell would serve as an ally to anyone affected. Among other offers, Rawlings stated that Cornell will assist travelers who are detained or prevented from re-entering the country; that Cornell Law School will provide free legal assistance to undocumented Cornell students; that law school faculty will offer legal assistance for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students in potential deportation proceedings, and that the university will protect the privacy of student information and records.


By Saturday the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had won a temporary emergency stay blocking the deportation of anyone being held in U.S. airports. The ACLU has also filed a lawsuit on their behalf.

As of press time a petition against the executive order had been signed by more than 14,800 U.S. faculty members, including 50 Nobel laureates, and another 18,000 supporters. The petition condemned the order as discriminatory and detrimental to national interests, and stated that it imposes an undue burden on members of the academic community.

“As social institutions, libraries have always stood for freedom of expression, diversity, inclusion, openness, generosity, and social justice,” Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries, told LJ.” I consider it essential that we boldly proclaim and enact those values now, when those values are under threat and when vulnerable members of the global community are further endangered through actions such as the recent executive order on immigration.”

Has the executive order impacted workers or students at your institution or library? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. Charles Flower says:

    I was against Trump being elected by Hillary Clinton was a terribly unqualified and inept candidate. I think her supporters owe it to the nation and the good people who voted for President Trump to give him support and respect. Hillary was a traitor and a criminal get over it already. It’s only a 90-day ban and it’s not like we’re talking about a group of people without taint. Hillary pledged pos et convicted criminals loose on the streets too. How safe would that be for your constituency. Rudy Guiliani who was a fantastic mayor of New York is his principal adviser. What’s wrong with this picture? Hillary even lied about her hEALTH WITH BY ALL MEASURES IS BAD. Have a good day! C.F.

    • anonymous coward says:

      The declaration of independence states that “ALL men are created equal” and have the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

      These are not qualified by geography.

      The executive order was sloppily written, poorly planned, poorly executed and irrationally aimed. On top of that- it’s based on horrible legislation written by a senior senator from California and signed by previous POTUS. It’s a long standing pool of xenophobia.

  2. It is time to support this administration that is working to protect its citizens. Colleges and universities could choose to support this effort or continue to indoctrinate students with the prevailing liberal views.