On top of every other stressor 2020 has thrown together into a massive anxiety salad, we now have to defend a yet another population that, in the United States, has literally no say in the policies that affect their life in the country that they live and study in. If you are an educator, which most of my Thursday readers are at the moment, this is urgent.
ICE has announced policies regarding F1 visas for international students concerning fall 2020 semester, policies that require students to be enrolled in face to face courses. This requirement isn’t unusual for F1 visas, but to enforce it during a pandemic is simply cruel and reckless. ICE is requiring that students either leave the country or transfer to another program if their program is going to be entirely online in the fall or if the institution has to go entirely online due to a spike in Coronavirus cases. Anyone who has ever tried to transfer schools—or even just to apply to a higher education institution—will understand that this isn’t a simple or quick process; now imagine trying to do it while managing shifting visa requirements.
This policy puts pressure on institutions to have face to face instruction, which as I’ve mentioned elsewhere is looking increasingly reckless and ill-advised. This policy will likely also have the effect of preventing institutions from going online in a timely manner should it become necessary, and in the case of containing contagious diseases, which can spread exponentially, even a day’s delay can have a severe human cost.
Many of these students can’t go home. They’ve poured their resources into being here, attending expensive U.S. institutions and navigating expensive U.S. international policy. Even if they and their families (which might likewise be adversely affected by the pandemic) have the means to bring them home under normal circumstances, and even if they have an permanent address to return to (many do not, especially among graduate students), many countries are likely to or already have closed their borders to the United States, a move which seems increasingly prudent given the rampant rises in cases of Covid-19 in the United States. If these borders are closed to all travelers, as they likely are, or severely restricted, how can these students leave the country?
I shouldn’t have to point out that higher education is one of the U.S.’s most important exports, and international students are a significant source of revenue for most institutions, as these students generally pay higher rates of tuition than other students. I shouldn’t have to point that out because that’s really not the most important reason why this policy is a Bad Idea. Economics are one thing; human lives are an altogether more important thing.
These students are important members of our university communities. They make our campuses richer culturally and help us to achieve our mission of expanding students’ horizons, both by acting as ambassadors for their own culture for other students and by themselves experiencing a culture that is not what they grew up in. They contribute excellent research; they lead on-campus organizations; they are valued students who participate in every facet of university life.
They are in a precarious position, though, and need advocates. While living and studying in American spaces, they have little or no legislative representation, since they can’t vote or otherwise participate in many of the civic engagement opportunities for citizens. We need to speak up for them, because we need to be able to support their continued education at our institutions. They paid to be here. They worked to be here. They enrich the programs we offer. They are members of our community, and we need to recognize that and support them.
I can’t recall if I’ve ever taught a section that didn’t have at least one international student in it. I certainly have never taught a semester without international students. And I wouldn’t have it any other way; they enrich my classrooms. They bring expertise that other students simply can’t offer, and as I’ve discussed before, I use student expertise as a resource in my curricula.
Moreover, what’s at stake here isn’t simply if these students can continue their education. What’s at stake, given how the pandemic has raised all the stakes, is quite simply the very lives of all students, faculty, and staff at universities.
This policy—which is made entirely independent of input from higher education institutions, and probably of any public health experts, because I can’t imagine any would sign off on it—will put pressure on institutions to hold on-campus face-to-face instruction. This will put pressure on students, faculty, and staff, whether international or citizen, to gather on campuses. This will put everyone in the community at increased and unnecessary risk for Covd-19, which is increasingly proving to be devastating even when it isn’t fatal. If this policy is allowed to stand and isn’t immediately struck down, it will result in deaths. International students may die. So may the faculty who teach them. So may the staff who run the campuses to support those mandated face-to-face classes. So may their US-citizen classmates. Any of these deaths is unacceptable because they’re so easily preventable, if our policy-makers had even a sliver of compassion or common sense.
What can be done? Well, to start with, I want to note that Harvard and MIT have already filed suit against ICE on this policy, and they are absolutely right to do so. I encourage other institutions to take similar actions, and to do so immediately. But most of us are not in upper administrative decision-making roles in higher education institutions, so what do we do.
I already called my representatives in Congress. It’s not much but it’s something that any citizen can do. To do so, I relied heavily on the following Twitter threads by people much more intelligent than myself on public policy matters:
Whatever your role related to higher education, the ICE policy hurts you. Colleges are a closely interconnected community. If you hurt one (fairly large, actually) group, you hurt us all. This is especially true for students; we must protect our students, who have entrusted the very shaping of their minds and the safety of their bodies to universities for a time. We must honor that trust.
International students matter.
Fight the #StudentBan.