On Jan. 30, 2011, Omid Kokabee, an Iranian physics doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, was not allowed to board his plane at Tehran airport on his return to the United States after spending winter break with his family. He was arrested for his refusal to work on the Iranian nuclear weapons project and spent over five years in an Iranian prison.

Six years later, on Jan. 28, 2017, Saira Rafiee, an Iranian political science doctoral student at the City University of New York, was not allowed to board her plane at an Abu Dhabi airport on her return to the U.S. after spending a winter break with her family in Iran. U.S. officials at the airport asked her to sign an “Application for Admission Withdrawal” that effectively revoked her student visa. She flew back to Tehran but was able to return to New York on Saturday, after a judge issued a temporary restriction order against the travel ban.

Rafiee was one of hundreds of foreign students affected by President Trump’s executive order that temporarily restricted travel to the U.S. from seven majority-Muslim countries. It has been designed to protect American citizens from terrorist acts. There is no question that the presence of al Qaeda and the Islamic State in certain countries requires extreme vetting of refugees and poor access to records in countries like Syria, devastated by war, makes such vetting difficult.

It is not so easy, however, to see what American interests are served by preventing foreign students like Rafiee, who already spent years in the U.S., from returning to their studies. Besides doing irreparable harm to the student’s future, it creates an open wound in the college student body and makes professors regret the wasted time and effort.

Rafiee devoted a major part of her scholarly life in New York to the study of authoritarianism. The excitement about freedom of expression and positive views of our country that foreign students like Saira develop during their studies in the U.S. last lifetimes. After foreign students return to their countries of origin, they are our best hope in fighting extremism and defending American values.

Iran, for example, is currently on a collision course with the U.S. Our hope is that Iranian moderates eventually prevail over the hardliners. According to a poll conducted by the National Defense Research Institute, Iranian citizens with the highest level of education have the most favorable views of the U.S. A number of moderate members of President Hassan Rouhani’s Cabinet have a history of spending time in the U.S.

Mohammad Nahavanmdian, Rouhani’s chief of staff, studied economics at George Washington University.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif attended high school in San Francisco, received his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in international relations from San Francisco State University, and a Ph.D. in international law from the University of Denver.

Minister of Communications and Information Technology Mahmoud Vaezi studied electrical engineering at Sacramento State University and San Jose State University before enrolling in the Ph.D. program in telecommunication engineering at Louisiana State University.

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Minister of Industries and Mines Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh studied industrial management at the University of California, Berkeley.

Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who also heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was the counterpart of the former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at the negotiations that resulted in the nuclear deal with Iran. The personal connection between the two was reportedly the key to signing the deal.

Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, who also heads the Iranian Environmental Protection Organization, lived with her parents in Philadelphia for six years while her father studied at the University of Pennsylvania.

Secretary of the High Council for Human Rights of the Iranian Judiciary Mohammad-Javad Larijani, who is also director of Tehran Institute for Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, studied mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. He and Ali Akbar Salehi were asking the judiciary to release Kokabee.

Many political figures throughout the world have similar history. If we are to continue planting seeds of American values outside the U.S., some tuning of the executive order on travel may be needed. This would win hearts in the U.S. and abroad, all while serving the long-term interests of the U.S.

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Eugene Chudnovsky is a distinguished professor of physics at the City University of New York and co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists.

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