The ICE decision is a fundamental affront to international students

Legal challenges may succeed, but US universities must plan how to maintain physical classes come what may to avoid mass deportations, says Brian Wong

July 11, 2020
Wearing mask in airport
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Anne* is a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard University. Earlier this year, she evacuated her campus four days after notice was given via email by the college dean. Coming from a Chinese city that was overrun by Covid-19, and to which flights cost a whopping $5,000, she was lucky that one of her best friends took her in. Continued residence in the US enabled her to attend classes remotely and lifted a huge mental burden off her ailing, working-class parents.

It is not clear if things will stay this way, however, with the Trump administration’s ruling on Monday that international students attending colleges in the US will not be able to stay in the country should all of their classes be digitalised during the coming term.

The decision by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is a fundamental affront to international students. It deprives them of the legal protections and recognition promised by the laborious visa process. It declares to them that, despite the hefty fees they pay, they are “not one of us”, and their immigration status can be stripped away on a political whim.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have filed a lawsuit challenging the rule, which would compel international students to choose between attending classes that may well compromise their physical safety, or relinquishing their hard-earned spaces at some of the leading universities in the world.

Overturning the policy may be difficult given the political climate and indeterminacy of court rulings, but colleges should bargain – as far as is possible – for the most lenient requirement possible regarding residency and physical class attendance. And if the action fails and restoring physical instruction, at least for international students, does become imperative to avoid mass deportations, the least universities could do is deliver that instruction via temporally and physically spaced out seminars and tutorials – with as few face-to-face teaching hours as possible to comply with the ICE orders.

But sometimes even infrequent attendance of socially distanced classes is not possible. Hence, curricula may also have to be modified, such that the modules or components involving physical attendance are less weighted than digital ones, so as to not penalise (domestic) students who cannot attend physical classes for immunity-related or other reasons.

Attending class isn’t always an option for faculty either. I spoke to Judy*, a postgraduate at Yale University, who notes that, “professors and teaching assistants may have a hard time going to work, given their high-risk dependants and cohabitants. Therefore, wholly digital lessons may not be an option, but a necessity.”

Should full digitisation continue, universities should guarantee to international students stripped of their visa status that they will not be required to attend physical lessons even if the campus eventually reopens. This will at least ensure that international students retain a pathway to graduation. Academic administrators and faculty should collaborate with public and university libraries and archives to make all course material available, and department heads must make careful adjustments to curricula and examinations based on student and faculty feedback so as to maintain a balance between maintaining a high level of academic rigour, and not undermining equity and fairness for students stranded back home.

Sam*, a PhD student at the University of California Berkeley notes that PhD students, too, could well be “repatriated” should they or their colleges be unable to offer physical classes. Given the importance of teaching as a core dimension of PhD training in the US, the risk is that graduate teaching assistants must either opt for in-person tutorials with their students – which could jeopardise both parties’ wellbeing – or accept that their visa status will be stripped. Universities should therefore revisit their regulations to ensure that PhD students are not required to teach classes as a condition of their student status.

The ICE decision renders US universities fundamentally hostile environments for many international students. The administrators and senior faculty who are making strenuous efforts to resist the ruling should be applauded, but beyond the legal legal battle, universities must start thinking about their Plan B and C.

Brian Wong is a DPhil candidate in politics at Balliol College, Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar (Hong Kong '20), and the founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review

*Names have been changed upon request. 

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