IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

ICE's international student ban is a politicized pandemic response that hurts America

International students contribute to America's economy, culture and competitiveness. Forcing them to leave hurts us as much as it does them.
Image: Students pass the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst on Oct. 21, 2016.
Students pass the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst on Oct. 21, 2016.Suzanne Kreiter / AP file

The U.S. leads the world in COVID-19 infections and deaths, both are still rising and its testing and contact tracing abilities are disastrously behind the rest of the world. And yet the pandemic response had been unendingly politicized, whether in the science-free debates over mask-wearing or in how it’s been used to scapegoat and punish those we deem unwanted “foreigners,” including Chinese people, immigrants or, now, all international students, too.

International students, of course, have been in the administration’s crosshairs since the president took office, targeted by everything from the attempts to impose a blanket ban on visas from Muslim countries, to proposed elimination or reductions of certain scholarly visas, to individual deportation orders imposed over a judge’s orders. Now they are being used once again by the Trump administration — this time, to strong arm schools and universities to re-open despite the potential risks to students, faculty and staff.

The latest salvo began with a June proclamation from the White House blocking “aliens who present a risk to the U.S. labor market following the coronavirus outbreak” — i.e., suspending a temporary visa program that applied to international research scholars, professors and some exchange students. That has now culminated in the July 6 guidance from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that prevents all international students (who must have F-1 visas) from entering or remaining in the United States if their classes are to be taught exclusively online.

Universities, of course, are already making some very difficult decisions about re-opening: Being together on a campus is one of the hallmarks of American higher education, but togetherness is currently a public health risk, and the pandemic shows no signs of abating.

Acting Deputy Department of Homeland Secretary Ken Cuccinelli has explicitly said that the administration’s actions are designed to put a thumb on the scales during this decision-making process. They know as well as any university administrator that international students typically pay full tuition, boosting revenues for schools, and spend heavily on housing and other goods. Collectively, international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and international students created or sustained more than 458,290 U.S. jobs in 2018-19.

No wonder, then, that Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have already filed a lawsuit to stop the rule from going into effect, with the backing of the Massachusetts attorney general, and more universities have announced their intention to join.

Some universities had, before the announcement, already opted for all-online instruction in the fall, others had planned to cautiously re-open their campuses and hold classes and other curricular activities face-to-face, and yet some others had some form of a hybrid model planned, based on each university’s assessment of the risks, benefits and opportunities to their staff, faculty and students.

One benefit of the all online model, for instance, is that it would give every student the opportunity for the same access — as long as they have reliable internet service and are in a compatible time zone (or didn’t mind sleeping at irregular hours). Those who do not have such capabilities could, in principle, alternately travel closer to the campus and still attend classes online because the beauty of digital access is that it evens the playing field in some ways: Everyone is a face on the screen in a Zoom classroom.

The latest ICE announcement risks making noncitizens of the U.S. second-class citizens in class by forcing them to go back to their home countries or remain in place if they are there, thereby eliminating the option of traveling to gain better digital access or time zone synchronization. Those who are forced to return, despite having stayed to attend their fall classes here, must now suddenly uproot themselves, potentially face restrictions in travel, go home to potentially unsafe conditions or, perhaps worst of all, carry unsafe conditions with them — the U.S. is, as noted, one of countries in the world with the highest COVID-19 infection rates right now.

And, of course, students at a university do not just attend classes: They contribute to numerous aspects of campus life, including research, entrepreneurship, athletics, societal outreach and other co-curricular activities.

America’s science and technology research, for instance, is critically dependent on international students, as is its start-up ecosystem. International students accounted for 54 percent of master’s degrees and 44 percent of doctorate degrees issued in STEM fields in 2016-17, while 25 percent of the founders of billion-dollar start-ups came to the U.S. as international students. (These disproportionate statistics are even more staggering when one considers the fact that international students represent no more than a million of the U.S. college student population — about 5.5 percent of the total.)

A student affected by this new rule could be the next Noubar Afeyan, whose family fled Lebanon for Canada. He got his Ph.D. at MIT and then co-founded of Moderna, which is now a front-runner in the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Or she could be the next Gita Gopinath, who came to Princeton from India to get a Ph.D., and who, as the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is assessing the economic damage done worldwide by COVID-19’s great lockdown— and possible actions for recovery.

That student we lock out of their education in the fall could be the next Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who came from Nigeria to get first her B.A. at Eastern Connecticut State University, then two masters (from Johns Hopkins and from Yale) and who is now a MacArthur “genius” grantee and the author of one of the finest modern novels — with insights into what it means to be Black in America.

Of course, the U.S. did not exactly have a history of welcoming international students with open arms before the Trump administration. I came to the U.S. as an international student when Ronald Reagan was president, and it was bad then and remained challenging thereafter. The visa interviews to which students are subjected at U.S. embassies and consulates are often confrontational, and even conducted like police interrogations. I personally had to produce all kinds of documentation to prove I would return to India, where I was born; I had to visit the U.S. embassy three times, waiting in long lines outside the building through the New Delhi heat with dust storms raging, after which I was spoken to rudely both by the visa officer and by customs officials upon my arrival in New York. My experience is far from unique.

But the next time you get on Zoom for a meeting or a meet-up, keep in mind that (for all its faults) the platform that is your lifeline for work or a family birthday or happy hour was founded by Eric Yuan, who is from China. He had to apply nine times before he earned a visa to enter the U.S., where he got a degree from Stanford. And if you need to Google the status of re-openings in your state, or you need Lysol to wipe down the table before you eat in that outdoor restaurant? The companies that let you get that stuff done are run by — you guessed it — former international students Sundar Pichai (who holds an M.S. from Stanford University and an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania) and Laxman Narasimhan (who has both an M.A. and an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania).

And if you decide, after reading this, that you want to use MS Word to write a letter the Department of Homeland Security and let them know your opinion of its latest guidance? The CEO of Microsoft is Satya Nadella, who came from India to get his M.S. at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then his M.B.A. at the University of Chicago. So perhaps, if you do write it, let ICE know that they may well be pouring ice water on America’s hopes for a fast recovery by locking out the students we’ll need to help enrich our economy and our culture, and rebuild America as we get past the pandemic.