University to Launch Chatbot in Response to Trump’s Travel Ban

The bot will assist students traveling from foreign countries to the U.S. through the immigration and customs process.

A new bot created by NYU IT in collaboration with OGS will assist students traveling from foreign countries to America through the immigration and customs process. (Staff Photo by Jorene He)

When President Trump announced his travel ban in 2017, employees in NYU’s Office of Global Services panicked.

With over 17,000 international students at NYU — more than any other higher education institution in America — and more applying each year, Trump’s limitation on travel from Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea and Venezuela directly affected many students. Chad has since been dropped from the list, but students from there and many other countries can still face difficulty getting through immigration.

For the 2018 to 2019 academic year, there are approximately 100 members of the NYU community from these countries, according to OGS.

Two years and multiple prototypes later, the university is hoping to launch a text message-based bot this summer — named Travel Monitor — that will ensure students arriving to NYC-area airports get through immigration and customs safely.

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The new bot, developed by students at NYU IT in collaboration with OGS, is a direct response to the travel ban. Before the flight, students will fill out an online form, including their flight number, date of arrival and phone number. The bot will then send a text one hour after arrival, asking if the student has cleared immigration and customs yet. Notifications will also be sent via email for students who don’t yet have a U.S. phone number.

If the student doesn’t respond after an additional two hours, or sends a text at any time saying something like “help,” an alert will automatically be sent to Public Safety. A lawyer from NYU Law’s Immigrant Defense Initiative and an officer from Public Safety will travel to the airport to assist the student.

NYU has previously taken legal action against the travel ban at least four times, filing amicus curiae briefs in support of dismantling it. University President Andrew Hamilton has said he views the travel ban as harmful to higher education.

The bot is an extension of a previous program established by OGS and IDI. Currently, NYU community members can sign up to have their travel to the U.S. monitored by a volunteer. This is a highly manual process, however, and the bot’s purpose is to automate this workflow, OGS Associate Director Melissa Zuroff explained to WSN.

Zuroff added that while there hasn’t yet been a case of a student needing assistance at the airport, she views the Travel Monitor as a kind of insurance policy.

“Originally, when this was conceived, we were a lot more worried, and it’s not like that worry has gone away, because anything could change at any given moment,” Zuroff said. “But we want to have a backup system in place, so that in the event people are held up at the border, we have a way to much more efficiently find out about it.”

Product Designer for NYU IT Sarth Desai managed the creation of the Travel Monitor and hopes that its launch will further cement NYU’s status as a leading institution for international students.

“We are more of a global university where people can go everywhere, so other universities learn from us, in terms of what we do for global services,” Desai said. “Once we launch this, other schools are going to learn from us and also probably implement it.”

Incoming Class of 2023 CAS first-year Prafulla Sujatha Nagesh, who is from India, said that she appreciates NYU’s emphasis on assisting international students.

“It’s pretty awesome [that NYU is] helping out international students, not just focusing on Americans,” Sujatha Nagesh said. “They’re not just getting students into the country, but they also care about what happens to them afterwards. That’s really nice.”

Tandon junior Arystan Tatishev, who is from Kazakhstan, said he thinks Travel Monitor will be useful for students undergoing extra security checks at the airport. He added that while he hasn’t faced any issues, his roommate from Pakistan is often taken for additional questioning.

“As an immigration officer, you have so much power, and at that point, as a traveler, you don’t really want to resist,” Tatishev said. “If you do, then there goes your visa, there goes your approval, there goes your possibility of even being in the country for the next few years.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 1, 2019, print edition. Email Akiva Thalheim at [email protected]

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