Rapid Response: What the Immigration Order Means for One Conference

Last week’s executive order on immigration raises a lot of questions for conference planners. And groups with a U.S.-based meeting coming up need answers sooner rather than later. Here's a look at the International Communication Association's response.

President Donald Trump’s executive order limiting immigration and visa distribution for seven countries created chaotic scenes in airports worldwide, led to heated protests and legal challenges, and, for associations looking at the issue from their role as conference planners, raised a host of thorny questions.

Among them: Will attendees from the seven countries named in the order—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—be able or willing to attend U.S.-based conferences? If an international attendee is detained on the way to a conference, what should an association’s role be?

It was important to address the concerns of many of our members and also to connect some really concrete actions to those concerns.

For groups like the International Communication Association, there’s an immediate need not only to get answers to these questions, but also to help members navigate the situation.

That’s because ICA—which represents scholars in all aspects of human and mediated communication—is only three months out from its May 2017 annual conference in San Diego. The event attracts a large number of attendees from outside the United States.

Immediate Response

One of its first steps came three days after the order was issued January 27. ICA’s Executive Committee posted a message that acknowledged concerns of both the organization and its members about the implications of the order on the upcoming conference and described immediate actions ICA was taking.

“We are a diverse organization, and out of that diversity of individuals, we have a lot of people who feel personally affected by the travel ban and a lot of people who are concerned,” Paula Gardner, ICA’s president-elect and conference planner, told me in an interview. “As a body that has pride in our diversity, we felt immediately that it was important to address the concerns of many of our members and also to connect some really concrete actions to those concerns.”

To that end, ICA laid out four immediate steps it would take “to preserve our right as scholars to freely present our work and to collaborate with our peers.” One is to waive the cancellation fee for those unable to attend because of the ban.

Perhaps the most surprising action on the list: ICA has retained legal counsel to assist any member or potential attendee, free of charge, with interpreting the new federal policy and applying for entry.

“We aren’t lawyers … so we can’t interpret this law for all of our members and how it may affect them,” Gardner said. “The uncertainty around everything really demonstrated to us that we needed legal counsel to interpret the potential risk or impact for any individual member.”

In addition, ICA wanted to know what the executive order meant for attendees who had already applied for visas before the order was issued. “What’s the status of the visas? What should they do?” she said.

And for presenters who cannot attend the conference but still want the opportunity to share their work, ICA will offer them the ability to do a teleconferenced or prerecorded session.

While this will incur additional cost, Gardner said the expense is one the group is “very happy to absorb in order to help facilitate discussion and knowledge sharing.”

Onsite Operations

Once the conference starts, discussion of the policy will continue. ICA has special panels in the works that encourage rigorous exchange and dialogue among attendees—something that is a core part of its mission and ethics statements, according to Gardner.

“Since the election and since this January order, we’ve increased the number of sessions that will discuss the current environment for academics internationally,” she said.

These include a session on conference boycotts and when they have and have not worked, an opening plenary on the issue of the border, and a special exhibit on paper-based propaganda materials.

“With these, we’re really trying to look at different places in the world and the impacts they’ve had—and what we can learn from each other and apply them to what we do,” Gardner said.

Future Focus

Even though ICA is focused on its May conference at the moment, it is also considering implications that travel bans and other immigration policies could have on future meetings.

That may mean putting a larger emphasis on teleconferencing. While there are extra costs and technology hurdles involved, Gardner said the issue has already been on the agenda. “We’re really trying to increase access to conferences to individuals from countries who don’t have the financial ability to attend,” she said. “We’ve seen teleconferencing as one way to do that, and it may become even more of a necessity moving forward.”

ICA has also been holding more regional conferences to get people involved and active in parts of the world that are usually underrepresented at its larger meetings.

No matter the tactic, Gardner said it’s all about serving ICA members. “We really want to demonstrate our commitment to our members … and show them that we’re not only listening but actively listening and responding.”

How is your association navigating the potential short- and long-term effects of the executive order? Please share in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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