International students are celebrating Trump’s exit

Biden must unravel the whole sordid mass of restrictive laws and venomous vitriol that drove down overseas enrolments, says Aditya Sharma

January 22, 2021
A person celebrating in New York
Source: iStock

On 7 November, a chorus of cheers and car horns resonated through the unseasonably warm air in Manhattan. The streets outside my dorm building were thronged with delirious crowds passing out cups of champagne or screaming joyfully into their phones. Many held up signs, uplifting but unprintable, marking Joe Biden’s toppling of Donald Trump after a protracted and exhausting presidential election cycle.

The defenestration of the Trump administration meant different things to different people. To public-health officials, it raised hopes of a change in the country’s catastrophic attitude to the Covid-19 pandemic. To overseas diplomats, it heralded an end to the chronic unpredictability of recent US foreign policy. And for international students like me, it promised that we would no longer live in fear, waiting for the government’s next move to toss us out of the country. 

Despite decades of constant growth in US enrolment of international students, Trump engineered a marked decline. That is hardly a surprise given his increasingly desperate attempts to make overseas students feel unwelcome, culminating in last summer’s announcement that international students whose universities switched to fully online education would not be permitted to return to or remain in the US.

The policy was so poorly crafted and met with such an overwhelming backlash that the administration chose, a week later, to rescind it rather than try to defend it against a lawsuit brought by a consortium of colleges and state governments.

But the crackdowns continued. In September, the administration revoked the visas of more than 1,000 Chinese students and scholars, reflecting the increased tensions between the two countries. It also moved to limit duration-of-stay for foreign students at American colleges and to restrict citizens of a long list of countries from obtaining four-year visas – the length of a standard undergraduate degree. Huge restrictions were also imposed on the H1-B visas used by foreign workers, including those employed by universities.

Despite everything, around a million foreign students are still in the US. To middle-class Indians like me, the resources and intellectual richness of its colleges make the country a proving ground for ambition, diligence and love of learning. Millions of us have seen our friends and neighbours follow up an American degree with a high-paying job, perhaps later returning to India flush with cash. The likes of Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella are idolised.

To be fair, US higher education has been clear about its support for its international students throughout the Trump era, and I appreciate leaders’ refusal to be cowed by the administration’s xenophobia and outright racism. In response to Trump’s threat to bar overseas students studying online-only, for instance, my own university’s president vowed to “vigorously oppose” it, in defence of “the international students, researchers and faculty who immeasurably enrich our institution”.

Of course, some of that enrichment is literal. International fees are often obscenely high (and more than eight in 10 foreign undergraduates rely on family funds, rather than grants or aid, to pay them) and, overall, foreign students contribute an estimated $41 billion (£30 billion) to the US economy annually, supporting more than 450,000 jobs. International staff and student also contribute to American life through scholarship, volunteering and activism. No one is doing us a favour by welcoming us.

If the US wants to continue reaping the benefits that we offer and reverse the decline in overseas enrolments, the new administration has a big job on its hands. Biden has made positive noises on visas for foreign students, and initial estimates of a double-digit rise in international enrolments for the coming academic year indicate that the damage done by the Trump administration is far from irreversible. But there must be a full unravelling of the sordid mass of restrictive laws and venomous vitriol that the outgoing government has assailed us with.

International scholars and students should not be made to feel unwelcome, as if the ground were always on the verge of opening up beneath us. The pavements of Manhattan felt more stable than at any time in my undergraduate career as the crowd celebrated Trump’s defeat that euphoric November morning. I felt as if I were being swept towards a future in which I belonged in the US. Now that Trump has finally left office, it is time to turn that future into the present.

Aditya Sharma is a freelance writer and final-year student at Columbia University, studying political science and English.

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