On July 6th, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a guidance that announced: “The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States.”[i] As institutions continue to grapple with COVID-19 and how to reopen campuses safely for the fall semester (which is just a few weeks away), the administration’s decision to potentially penalize universities for going fully online in the fall sent shockwaves to all constituents of the U.S. higher education system.
I came to the U.S. an international student in 2007 to pursue a Ph.D. in political science. Obviously, I’m no longer a student. When I saw the news on July 6th, though, just thinking about what I would have done if my visa were to be suddenly canceled during a global pandemic made my heart race.
Although ICE rescinded its guidance yesterday thanks to the legal effort led by institutions like Harvard and MIT among several others, the impact of ICE’s original announcement and the message it sends to current and future international students studying in the United States needs to be reckoned with.
Here’s what I think: international students make our education system richer, better, and stronger. For one, they contribute to the educational experience of everyone on campus in more ways than we can think of. Imagine the UIS campus without the International Festival. This is the longest-running student-led event in the history of the university—for 43 years! Furthermore, the research international students conduct in laboratories and out on the field across the U.S. contribute to our knowledge in every discipline from humanities to STEM. Many of them choose to remain in the United States to pursue careers in their adopted home. Those who stay in academia, like myself, continue to train students in their fields. Those who move on to the industry contribute to the U.S. economy. The diverse perspectives and experiences that international students bring to the table make our campuses, classrooms, and workplaces thrive.
And thanks to our international students, education remains a key export of the United States. A Brookings Institution report from 2017 notes that “according to the government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, education accounts for 5 percent of the entire national export sector.” That makes it about $50 billion.[ii] Nearly 1 million international students study in the U.S. annually.[iii] Any way you cut it, international students leave a big footprint in the U.S. education system, economy, and society.
So what message does the government send when it issues plans to suspend international students’ visas for enrolling in ‘online-only’ institutions? Not a positive one. It tells our international students that they are not valued. That they are not wanted here, in their adopted homes. That their research studies or contributions to our (virtual or face-to-face) classrooms are expendable. Ask any faculty at any university or college in the U.S. and they will tell you that this is wrong. And besides, this is not who we are. This should not be the message that we send young and bright folks around the world who aspire to study with us at our institutions.
I am very pleased (and relieved!) that the decision has now been rescinded, even though it caused a lot of panic and anxiety for university administrators, faculty, and most importantly, our students. I look forward to the 2020-2021 academic year, when my international students and I continue to discuss politics and international relations in the time of COVID-19.
Sibel Oktay received her Ph.D. and M.A. in Political Science from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She also holds an M.A. in Political Science and a B.A. in Social and Political Sciences from Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey. She was a visiting predoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies between 2012 and 2014. Dr. Oktay specializes in Foreign Policy Analysis. Specifically, she investigates how domestic political institutions influence foreign policy decision-making processes and foreign policy behavior; the impact of foreign policy on public opinion and voting behavior; and how the psychological traits of political leaders affect these relationships.
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