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U of T community gathers for Bordering Injustice: How Should We Respond to Trump’s Ban

Audience members turned out to ask questions and offer suggestions for how the university can help scholars affected by the ban (photo by Johnny Guatto)

The sharing and pursuit of knowledge knows no borders, said members of the University of Toronto community who gathered at a town hall to find ways to help fellow scholars affected by the Trump administration’s travel ban.

Beginning in late January, a number of Canadian universities, including U of T,  sprang into action to help fellow academics and students stranded by the ban, opening their homes, classrooms and labs.

Read more about the response

But more can and should be done, said participants at Friday’s “Bordering Injustice: How Should We Respond to Trump’s Ban”.

“We are dismayed by the U.S. administration’s policy and the impact it’s having on our students, faculty and staff, as well as those beyond U of T,” said Professor Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s vice-president and provost, who thanked the volunteers from several faculties and audience members for coming together at the town hall.

“We have approximately 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students studying at U of T who are citizens of the seven affected countries . . . [and] we encourage all members of our community to let us know how this policy has affected you, or could affect you in the future.”

Among the panellists who spoke was U of T PhD student Ehsan Alimohammadian who shared his experience of being detained at the San Francisco International Airport for 14 hours because of the Trump travel ban.

The executive order went into effect while the Iranian citizen, who had his visa in place for the visit, was in the air en route from Toronto to present his research findings to a group of his peers on making photonic devices for biological applications.

Read more about Alimohammadian's experience

“The conference was so important to me . . . but January 27 wasn’t the luckiest day of my life,” he said with a smile. “Iranian people love science. We go abroad to learn science. I don’t think science has a nationality.”

One of the most popular ideas floated by the audience at the town hall was to bring back 1960s-style teach-ins open to the public and webcast to other universities where people could learn about national security issues – like how “laws of emergency arising from 9/11 have become normalized,” one professor suggested.

A number of Iranian students who spoke at the event stressed that the travel difficulties posed by Trump are nothing new for them. One woman passionately asked for the university to help students from the seven countries affected by the travel ban by providing or directing them towards pro bono legal help and to help expedite student permanent residency applications with the Canadian government.

Other audience members said the university should train teaching assistants and professors on how to address Islamophobia in the classroom, and students should be taught they, too, have a responsibility to not add to the flood of ‘fake news’ on social media. 

Panellist Lisa Austin, assistant professor in the Faculty of Law, suggested the university should make “burner cellphones and clean laptops” available to students and faculty travelling to the United States for conferences to avoid their personal information being searched by American border agents, as per recent news reports that people have been asked for cellphone and social media account handles and passwords at the border.

A number of people said the university needs to share more information on what it is doing to help bring international PhD students affected by the ban to U of T. Several professors said they’d been contacted directly by students in the United States or elsewhere who would like to come to U of T, but they weren’t sure where to direct the inquiries, or how to best offer support.

Regehr asked people to pass these requests along to Joe Wong, associate vice-president & vice-provost for international student experience, and Locke Rowe, dean of the School of Graduate Studies and vice-provost of graduate research & education, so they have an idea of the demand. She said Wong and Rowe will work with the deans to see what can be done to help.

She also noted that the School of Graduate Studies has waived application fees for students from the affected countries, and the administration is encouraging flexibility on application deadlines across the university. Bursaries are also available for students in need.

The university is also sharing online the latest information it has, as well as the resources it has made available to students, staff and faculty.

All of the ideas from the town hall will be collected and widely shared within the university community as soon as possible, promised the moderator, Professor Audrey Macklin, director of the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies and chair in human rights law.

The university is also sharing immigration updates online.