You may be among the 2,00,000 plus Indian students studying or planning to study in an American university. You may be a parent or well-wisher standing behind a student. You may be wondering why is America hassling international students. Now, let’s not kid ourselves. Going to the US to study has never been easy. Back in my day, Ronald Reagan was the US president. I visited the US embassy three times, was made to wait outside the building for hours in heat and dust storms, only partly mitigated by the greenery of the Diplomatic Enclave and dreams of an adventure ahead. The visa interview was like a police interrogation and it got even worse when I landed at the John F Kennedy airport in New York. My experience is far from unique.
I suspect things improved since the Reagan years before they got worse. Trump seems to have problems with “aliens” of many stripes. The latest anti-student salvo began with a June White House proclamation to stop “aliens who present a risk to the US labour market”. Now we have guidance from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that will prevent all international students from getting or keeping a student visa if their classes are to be taught exclusively online.
Being together on a campus is one of the hallmarks of American higher education, but togetherness is currently a public health risk. Some universities plan to cautiously re-open their campuses with face-to-face classes. Others have gone all online. And yet others have a hybrid model planned. One benefit of online instruction is that it gives every student the same experience, as long as they have reliable internet service and are in a compatible time zone.
The ICE announcement risks making noncitizens of the US second-class citizens in digital classrooms. It eliminates the option of traveling to gain better digital access or time zone synchronisation. Those who are forced to return, must uproot themselves, face restrictions in travel, return to potentially unsafe conditions or carry unsafe conditions with them — the US has the highest volume of COVID-19 cases in the world.
Why would Trump’s band of geniuses bother with such trivialities, given so much else going on that could easily help occupy their time? The US holds the world record in COVID cases and deaths. Twenty million workers have lost their jobs and only 4.8 million of those lost jobs were recovered in re-openings in June. Nearly nine million adults and four million children are living with post-pandemic food shortages. George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis brought 26 million people into the streets.
And then, there is that election in November.
So, why pick this fight? It is not as if the coal miners of West Virginia, who voted Trump in are being displaced by these hapless students. Someone should slip a memo to the Trump re-election team that international students produced 4,58,290 jobs in 2018-19, almost nine times the number of coal mining jobs in America.
Many of these international students have survived the rigours of the most competitive institutions on Earth. Many pay three times the tuition paid by domestic students. For many, the airline tickets alone have emptied the family’s financial reserves. It’s no wonder that those who make it past the hurdles do well for America. The next student to be booted out could be the next Noubar Afeyan, from Lebanon. After an MIT PhD, he eventually co-founded Moderna, a front-runner in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine. The next student denied entry could be the next Gita Gopinath, from India, a Princeton PhD. As chief economist of the IMF, she is assessing the economic damage worldwide from the great lockdown — and possible actions for recovery. That student we lock out could be the next Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from Nigeria. After studying at Eastern Connecticut State University, Johns Hopkins and Yale, she wrote a novel with one of the finest insights into being Black in America. Without any of these or countless of my own students, our understanding of where America is and where it ought to go would be much poorer.
To disentangle the twisted Trumpian logic, consider these.
First, the administration’s actions are designed to influence the universities’ decision-making process regarding campus re-openings. This is part of Trump’s push to get back to business-as-usual, a narrative essential for re-election. He’s been urging schools to re-open. The international student visa move is a way to strong-arm university administrations. Losing these students would mean loss of much-needed revenues for universities.
Second, don’t forget the long-running China-as-enemy rhetoric. China is the biggest source of international students. A third reason has to do with the enemy within — liberalism. The three states that overwhelmingly benefit from international students, California, New York and Massachusetts will, without question, vote for Joe Biden. College campuses are also considered to be more left-leaning.
Finally, Trump knows his base gets weaker the closer you get to college. Sixty-four per cent of non-college-educated Whites supported Donald Trump, as compared with 38 per cent of Whites with a university degree. Punishing colleges and “elitism” is a powerful part of the re-election narrative. Of course, the reaction from US academia has been swift. Universities, across the board, including my own, have protested — some have even sued.
What can you — student, parent, well-wisher — do? Google the addresses for ICE leadership. Bang out a letter on Microsoft Word and make a PDF to ensure it will not be tampered with. Tell them how stupid this idea is and that it will only set America even further back. Get on a Zoom call with your friends in America and suggest they do the same thing. Also tell ICE that the companies letting you get all this done are all run by — you guessed it — former international students. They are also America’s gifts to itself and to the world.
The writer is Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context and a non-resident senior fellow of Brookings India