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January 22, 2024

Discriminatory Florida Law Bars Certain University Offers to Iranian Nationals

On January 8th, 2024, The Alligator reported that Florida universities have been banned from recruiting Chinese, Iranian, North Korean, Cuban, Venezuelan, and Syrian students for graduate research and employment programs. This follows a December report in The New York Times outlining the panic among University of Florida professors who have now been forced to rescind offers and reject applications for students from adversarial countries.

The basis for these rejections is a law signed by Governor Ron DeSantis on May 23, 2023, SB 846, as part of DeSantis’ high profile effort to appear tough on China, Iran, and other “countries of concern.” The law prohibits state universities from accepting grants from or participating in partnerships or agreements with a college or university based in China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria unless specified conditions are met. The law mandates an approval process, on a case by case basis, wherein the Board of Governors can approve partnerships with universities or individuals from foreign “countries of concern” if said partnership is deemed valuable to the state’s universities by the Board and is not “detrimental to the safety or security of the United States or its residents.” The law also requires a yearly report submitted to the Florida governor and Florida legislative bodies tracking any foreign partnership activity across state university campuses.

Simultaneously, Governor DeSantis had also signed SB 264 into law in May 2023, which restricts ownership of land and property to citizens from China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria. While two distinct laws, both SB 846 and SB 264 speak to a growing trend of civil rights restrictions against targeted immigrant groups that clearly violate equal protection under the Constitution. 

While SB 846 does not prohibit basic enrollment at Florida universities, it does prohibit universities from making offers of academic and research-based employment. As such, since SB 846 took effect, professors at the University of Florida have begun to dismiss applicants from “countries of concern,” identified through 15 C.F.R § 7.4, and have even gone as far as rescinding verbal offers that have already been extended. Notably, over 300 faculty members at the University of Florida, signed onto a petition urging the continuation of hiring top talent regardless of national origin and demanding clearer guidelines regarding hiring procedures. 

Apart from the bureaucratic complexities that professors in Florida now face, it is the students who remain in the most uncertainty as life-changing opportunities are being stripped away from them. 

Unfortunately, the Iranian community is no stranger to these kinds of restrictions. For so many of us here, the ability to come to the U.S. to study and work under academic institutions was the path through which many of our families immigrated and put down roots here. And historically, Iranian students have already dealt with restrictions against their academic pursuits, most notably in 2012 when Congress passed sanctions legislation at the height of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program that required the State Department to restrict visas for Iranians who sought to study in scientific fields at U.S. universities. And just as that national security concern brought individual, discriminatory targeting, this current case has also taken an overly broad approach, fueled by rising tensions with China, that has been applied broadly to countries at odds with the U.S.

This law is one of many broad-based discriminatory measures strategically guised as maintaining national security that have begun cropping up at the state level. The likelihood of copycat laws across other states is significant. After Texas Governor Abbott vowed to sign a modern-day alien land law last year barring property purchases by certain nationals, several other states – and even federal legislators – quickly followed suit. A student ban bill similar to the one in Florida was also introduced in Texas at around the same time, but never passed the state legislature.

Our ongoing fight against property ownership bans made it very clear to us that the trend of cracking down on adversarial countries, particularly through the targeting of individuals and immigrants in particular, has become increasingly prevalent. And just as we organized and mobilized to push back against the wave of blatantly discriminatory land laws, bank account closures, and travel ban restrictions, we will do the same with this newest threat of restriction against our community. People, especially students pursuing their education and a better life, are not their governments, and we will continue to work to rid both local and federal harmful and xenophobic policies like SB 846.

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