By Manar Waheed, ACLU Senior Legislative and Advocacy Counsel & Abed A. Ayoub, ACLU National Legal & Policy Director
After a week of chaos, international students were able to relax after the Trump administration agreed to rescind its latest attack on immigrants: an attempt to ban international students whose classes would be entirely online this fall. The administration has normalized chaos, fear, and trauma over the last few years, beginning with airports all over the country during the Muslim ban and tearing children apart from their parents to attempting to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status programs. In the last several months, the administration has repeatedly used the pandemic as a reason to further grind the immigration system to a halt, issuing orders to terminate more immigration programs and options. The administration’s reckless disregard for human life has been highlighted by its failure and unwillingness to address the pandemic — instead, President Trump focuses on ways to exploit the pandemic.
On July 6, the Trump administration took a swing at students, and missed. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under the government’s purview, announced that international students at universities and colleges that were exclusively online this fall would be denied visas, and those already in the United States must transfer schools, leave, or face removal. This announcement attempted to pull back a previous COVID-19 government policy, which indicated that students could attend classes remotely “for the duration of the emergency.”
Students’ lives and futures were shattered with just a short press release by ICE, the arm of the Department of Homeland Security charged with overseeing this student visa program. The announcement raised questions regarding why an enforcement agency oversees a student program, instead of USCIS, the immigration benefits agency. The short answer is that this program was legislated into a securitized monitoring system after 9/11 and eventually landed at ICE’s doorstep. This is yet another reminder that the over-policing of communities of color has been repeatedly embedded into our systems, resulting in lifetimes of unjust policies.
There are over 1 million international students in the U.S. who began to scramble after the announcement, worried about their next step. Students were left with impossible questions: Do they risk their safety in order to stay by attending in-person classes? Is their home country allowing entry for people coming from the U.S.? Will they have access to internet to attend online courses? Is their home country safe for them? What if they are placed in removal proceedings and into the U.S.’ horrific immigration detention centers, putting them at heightened COVID-19 risk?
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee spent the week helping students around the country, many consumed with fear and uncertainty. One student from Lebanon, a country in the midst of an economic meltdown and on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, realized online learning would be a non-starter if he returned. Many parts of the country currently have no or limited access to electricity. That student was not alone, as others from Yemen, Syria, Palestine (Gaza), and other countries expressed similar concerns. Students from Haiti, Jamaica, Equatorial Guinea, Pakistan, Colombia, Russia, Vietnam, Chile, and Brazil also raised a range of hurdles such as civil war and hostilities, lack of essential services such as electricity and internet, and inability of their local government to provide the safety and security necessary for a safe learning environment.
Students, whose families worked for years to save money for them to study in the U.S., confronted the extreme strain and burden on their families if they were to return. Many students were also afraid to go back home, fearing repercussions for their lifestyles or political views. With COVID-19 infections raging in the United States, some also wondered how they could comply with the current travel restrictions.
International students have long been a part of our history and a part of educational learning for all students. They also constitute a significant portion of enrolled students at many educational institutions — reportedly as high as 30 percent of the student population at one institution in 2018. Their classmates, shocked by the administration’s ban, launched petitions for hybrid models and many professors and institutions shifted their practices to try to allow their students to continue their studies here. Several even filed lawsuits to protect their students from these attacks. In one of these court proceedings, the government announced it would rescind its announcement.
A victory for over 1 million students in the United States, their loved ones here and abroad, and educational institutions nationwide. These victories are rare, but the upheaval and uncertainty are not. As rumors surge about President Trump taking another shot at upending the lives of DACA recipients, international students wonder if the government will try again to take away their security too. Trump-manufactured crisis after crisis, impacting the well-being, safety, and peace of mind of so many.
President Trump will likely continue in his failure to protect the people in America by exploiting the pandemic for his hateful agenda to dismantle our immigration system, rather than creating a coordinated response for the future of our nation. Though at times we might lose ourselves in the darkness of these failures, this week reminds us that there are no small wins. Every victory is immeasurable in its ability to help someone.
When we all fight together, those numbers grow — this week, to over 1 million.