President Stephens signs letter against executive order

Photo by Emily Tarantini ’18  Acting president Sonya Stephens attended a Nov. 16 walkout demanding the College become a sanctuary campus.

Photo by Emily Tarantini ’18

Acting president Sonya Stephens attended a Nov. 16 walkout demanding the College become a sanctuary campus.


When Habiba Shah ’19 boarded her flight from Saudi Arabia to the United States on Jan. 27, she did not know that when she landed in New York City she would find herself in a different America than the one that she left in December.

The same day, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning entry to the United States for citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, for 90 days. Refugees from those countries would not be allowed to enter for 120 days, and Syrian refugees would be banned indefinitely.

Within a week of the order’s issue, acting president of Mount Holyoke College Sonya Stephens teamed up with the presidents and chancellors of 47 other top U.S. colleges and universities to condemn the policy. On Feb. 2, acting president Stephens signed a letter to President Trump requesting that he rectify or rescind the executive order, noting that the order “threatens both American higher education and the defining principles of our country,” while it also “specifically prevents talented, law-abiding students and scholars from the affected regions from reaching our campuses.”

Mount Holyoke College would likely be affected by the executive order; 28 percent of the College’s students are from countries other than the United States. Shah is one of them.

Shah, a Muslim student from Karachi, Pakistan, said that even though her country is not on the list of countries named by the executive order, she still felt unsafe while traveling back to Mount Holyoke after winter break. “It’s not just the nationalities that are targeted, it’s an entire religion,” she said.

When her flight landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport on the day that the executive order was signed, she found herself in the heart of a vibrant national protest. President Trump had signed the order while she was in transit, so she had no knowledge of it.

“Most of the people on my flight were Saudi Arabian and also had no idea,” she said, and recalled watching officials handcuff a Sudanese student upon arrival. Shah was asked to sit in a room with many other foreign nationals, especially those from Muslim-majority countries, for approximately three hours without her phone or travel documents.

“Being detained doesn’t seem like a big deal compared to being deported,” she said. “But it doesn’t make sense to people... some were kept for 16 hours and missed their flights.”

As soon as she stepped back onto Mount Holyoke’s campus, she felt like she was in a safe environment. This was partly due to the administration’s display of commitment to Mount Holyoke’s inclusive values. Shah explained that even if the letter to President Trump signed by acting president Stephens didn’t specifically change any national policies, it was important because “it let the people in the College know that many people from here aren’t okay with the order.”

Shah’s parents, who live in Pakistan, even considered having her return home when they heard about the executive order and its affect on Muslims. However, she said, “Once they heard that our college is not okay with it and much of New England feels the same way, they decided it was alright for me to stay.”

The status of the executive order has changed multiple times since Jan. 27. Right now, it is not in effect due to a United States Court of Appeals ruling which upheld a Federal District Court judge’s decision to temporarily block the order. It is unclear at this point whether the Trump administration plans to appeal the ruling, which would likely lead to a Supreme Court case, or rewrite the executive order entirely.

Mount Holyoke students are affected by the order in many different ways. Francesca Eremeeva ’20 hopes to fill the role of an educated ally. As an American citizen Eremeeva explained that she thinks standing up and actively saying “‘We don’t understand what you’re going through, but we understand what’s happening to you, and we are going to stand up against it in an educated manner,’” is the most important thing that students like herself can do.

Eremeeva said she is happy with the letter directed to President Trump that acting president Stephens signed. She said of the College’s reaction to the order, “I think the letters acting president Stephens wrote to the community were a little vague, but overall I think she’s doing everything she can. I really respect her for that. She’s clearly against [the order]. Of course, I would like the College to speak even more boldly about it, but they are an institution that receives federal funds.”

Acting president Stephens highlight- ed this point regarding federal funds at SGA’s senate meeting on Feb. 7, in order to explain why the college cannot explicitly participate in matters of partisan politics. The College can, however, stand up for values which are intrinsic to its mission.

“We want them to protect students both politically and financially, and I think that’s what they’re doing,” said Eremeeva.

“Immigration Day of Action” will be held this Friday, Feb. 17, in Hooker Auditorium from 2:00-4:00 p.m. Students may attend to write letters or make phone calls to their representatives to voice their concerns over President Trump’s executive order. This event will be cohosted by MSA, ISOC, Amnesty International, Students of Color Committee and Arab Students Association.