Op-Ed: Human rights violations and masked xenophobia under ICE’s rescinded student ban

Saturday, July 11, 2020 - 5:05pm

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Design courtesy of Hibah Chugtai

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced colleges and universities in the United States to consider and implement alternative “public health-informed” fall semesters. Many schools are trying to avoid an all-online semester, but as cases continue to rise in the U.S., remote classes are becoming increasingly unavoidable. On July 6, less than two months before most colleges are set to reopen, President Donald Trump’s administration released a statement through the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that had the potential to further complicate potential reopening plans. According to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, if a college is offering solely online classes, international students attending school would have two choices: transfer to a college offering some in-person classes or leave the country. On Tuesday, July 14, ICE rescinded this policy. While this is a huge win for international students, this rule should have never been proposed in the first place, and should force U.S. universities to reckon with the fact that international students are valued not for any potential economic contributions, but because they are students. 

This policy would have been a gross human rights violation that would have harmed international students. Every student has the right to learn and if they are here on a visa, the right to feel safe without the threat of removal. This policy infringes on both of those rights. Students who signed a lease for the academic semester would have been stuck with it, searching for a subletter in a market that has little to no demand. Students who are in their last year of school would no longer be able to graduate as planned, plunging them into further uncertainty and piling on financial difficulties. Students whose visas expire after the academic year would not be able to have them renewed, leaving them unable to return to the U.S. to finish their degree. Students forced to leave the U.S. would potentially be returning to unstable environments unsuitable for academic work and face challenges posed by faulty internet connection, inability to access educational resources, disruptive time differences and unsafe health conditions in the midst of the pandemic.

Since ICE announced its student visa policy, many have invoked the economic benefits of international students as a counterargument. Universities in the U.S. have long relied on the revenue generated by international students’ tuition (international students pay up to three times more than in-state students at public universities) and the fact that international students contribute $39 billion to the national economy. These arguments are harmful in opposing human rights violations perpetrated by ICE. To reduce international students to their economic value is degrading. To suggest that their rights should be protected relative to that economic value is immoral.

ICE has a disturbing reputation of dehumanizing those who do not enjoy the privileges of U.S. citizenship. To defend international students from ICE based on their economic status neglects the activism and struggle of marginalized groups — especially refugees, migrant workers and other undocumented individuals — that have long fought to abolish ICE without the benefit of robust economic power. International students deserve protection from ICE not because of their economic contributions, but because everyone — from the wealthiest international student to the humblest refugee at the border — deserves safety, dignity and belonging. 

Beyond defending basic human rights, this policy would have made even less sense on the stage of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and will likely increase the spread of the disease. The U.S. has over one million international students each year. Deporting even a fraction of these students and forcing them to travel in unsafe conditions creates a large risk for a second wave of COVID-19 to affect other countries that may have recovered or controlled the spread. The policy also would have put international students themselves at risk for contracting COVID-19 if forced to leave their current homes in the U.S. 

In the policy, ICE stated that international students would have the option to transfer to a school that is offering in-person classes. However, this option to transfer is not a true alternative. ICE made its announcement less than two months before the beginning of the semester, rendering it nearly impossible for students to transfer to another university based solely on the timing of application deadlines. Even if a small minority of students were able to meet these deadlines, transferring would interrupt current studies, require bureaucratic processes to transfer credit and introduce a large cost to move and expose students to a new, risky campus in light of COVID-19.

U.S. universities, including the University of Michigan, filed amicus briefs alongside Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security. The lawsuit states that the policy forces an “impossible choice” for universities, to either “lose numerous students who bring immense benefits to the school or take steps to retain those students through in-person classes.” These universities must make clear that international students are not simply an “immense benefit” for their institution, whether that benefit is the tuition money they bring in, or in providing a more diverse perspective in classrooms. Instead of creating an extraneous case for international students based on an economic and diverse “immense benefit,” the universities must explicitly show that international students deserve protection because they are students, full stop.

ICE and the Trump administration are weaponizing the pandemic, using the crisis discourse to enact exceptional securitization measures against international students. While on one hand, the Trump administration downplays COVID-19 rates in the U.S., on the other hand, they deemed it necessary to deport students, citing the risk of the global pandemic. This pretextual use of the COVID-19 crisis distracts from any true productive governance. Deporting tens of thousands of international students would have added to the Trump administration’s ongoing agenda to restrict legal immigration to the U.S. This policy, based solely in xenophobia and cruelty but masked in a guise of “safety,” would have affected up to one million international students in the U.S. The student ban perpetrated by ICE is a violation of human rights that should have never been enacted to begin with. It is time to abolish ICE from our classrooms.

Maeve Skelly is a senior in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and can be reached at skellym@umich.edu.