Unions, colleges win protection for international students

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Kick international students out of the country? Force them to attend in-person classes in the face of a pandemic? That would be a hard “no.”

In a resounding victory over the Trump administration’s threat that international students must attend classes in person or leave the country, students, their colleges and their unions successfully won a reversal: The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has rescinded its rule and will allow students to stay in this country regardless of the online status of their classes.

University of Michigan“The University of Michigan, where graduate employees are represented by an AFT affiliate, is one of dozens of universities to support a lawsuit that protects international students from deportation” Photo: pawel.gaul/ iStock

The ICE proposal created a surge of formidable opposition, leading with a lawsuit filed July 8 by Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and bolstered by an amicus brief from four unions—the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union, and the United Auto Workers—as well as amicus briefs from more than 50 other colleges and universities. Graduate employee unions immediately swung into high gear providing resources, through virtual workshops and online guides, to panicked students wondering how long they’d be able to stay in this country. There were petitions, statements and a wave of social media protest over the policy.

Opposition was based on numerous factors: Students forced to attend in-person classes would be put at risk, as would other students and faculty in those classes; and if they were banned from the United States and tried to continue their studies online, many would face radical time differences that would make it impractical to coordinate with colleagues and senior professors. Students could lose research-related funding contingent on their ability to interact with other academics on grant-funded projects; and schools could lose international student enrollment and the associated tuition, challenging already-constrained budgets unless they open more classes to in-person attendance. 

There would also have been technical difficulties associated with studying from outside the country, such as limited internet access, censorship of the internet in some home countries such as China, and the impossibility of duplicating complex computer equipment required for research. And there was also the very real possibility that home countries would not allow students to enter from the United States, which has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the world.

“Today is a victory not only for immigrant students in America but for the country as a whole, which benefits daily from the contributions of students who come here from abroad to study, research, learn and contribute to our discourse and our economy,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Immigrant students help make our colleges and universities the lively and vibrant places they are. It’s no surprise that instead of dealing with the mounting public health, economic and racial justice crises facing our country, President Trump chose to attack the immigrant community and use them as political pawns ahead of the November election. But today shows that courts still rely on the Constitution and basic freedoms to push back against Trump’s xenophobic and racist aims. It is a victory for justice, fairness and inclusion.”

Before the reversal was announced, students rallied and spoke out against the policy, framing it in stark terms. “The choices given are loud and clear,” said Ihsan Al-Zouabi, a doctoral student in criminal justice at Rutgers University and a member of the Rutgers International Student Working Group. “Either risk contracting the virus or leave the country.”

“These new guidelines use us as bargaining chips to force universities to open in person for the fall semester while telling us we are unwanted in a country we came to study and work in,” said Monica Hernandez Ospina, a doctoral candidate in geography, also at Rutgers. “Our money is valuable but our lives are not.”

While international students are still alert to possible changes in U.S. policy, for now most are relieved that they can stay and complete their programs of study in the communities where they have made their homes, joining American students and graduate employees to navigate the uncertainty of pandemic-era academia together.

There are more than 1 million international graduate students in the United States; some 600,000 of them are represented by unions through their work as teaching assistants and research assistants.

[Virginia Myers]