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To all American citizens: We must stand up for international students

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently announced that non-immigrant F-1 and M-1 students will not be granted visas or allowed to stay in the United States this year if they are taking a fully online course load. This decision is cruel, xenophobic and antidemocratic. Stanford University and its students must do everything possible to ensure that this decision is reversed and that Stanford’s international students are able to continue their education with as little disruption as possible. 

Roughly one million international students are currently pursuing degrees in the U.S. For context, the U.S. has a total of 19.9 million undergraduate and graduate students, counting U.S. students and international students. International students represent a large and important part of our student population. 

Yet ICE believes that it has the authority to decide, without any public debate, that one out of every twenty students in the U.S. can be thrown out of the country in the middle of the pandemic. This decision was announced without warning, without any congressional hearings, without any of the public consultation and debate that make democracies democratic. This alone should be enough to invalidate the decision. 

Any substantive discussion would have made it abundantly and painfully clear that this move is ridiculous. Thanks to the U.S.’s shameful, likely criminal, failure to suppress or even contain COVID-19, less than 30 countries are currently accepting or plan to accept travelers from the U.S. Many international students cannot return home, whether they want to or not. Furthermore, it is completely unrealistic to expect students to plan and pay for international travel at a time when airlines are operating at less than 50% capacity globally and many carriers are requiring passengers to be tested for COVID-19 (and the U.S.’s testing capacity is still insufficient). Even students who can afford vastly inflated airfare may not be allowed to enter their home countries. Students that do make it home may face unavoidable and politically motivated internet outages, political suppression and persecution and a plethora of other hardships which will undermine their education. Most importantly, requiring students to travel forces them to risk contracting and spreading COVID-19. It is hypocritical and almost cartoonishly malicious for the U.S. to attempt to force a mass exodus from our country, where COVID-19 is completely uncontrolled, even as we restrict entry from other countries. 

All this for absolutely no reason. I cannot imagine a single reasonable argument for kicking international students out of the country simply because their classes will be online. Sure, online classes mean that they are not required to be physically present in the U.S., but why would we respond to that by arbitrarily exiling them? What harm can it possibly do to have people who, in ordinary times, would live here and study here, live here and study online? What purpose can this announcement possibly serve, besides satisfying and stoking xenophobia while hurting international students?

Often, American debates about immigration and international students go to weird places. Advocates for immigration allow themselves to fall into the rhetorical trap of needing to defend immigrants’ “American-ness,” economic utility or low likelihood of committing crimes. All of these arguments, though true, concede what should be the most important part of the argument. Immigrants should not need to earn their place in the U.S., or prove their worth or their usefulness to the abstract concept of our “national interest.” Similarly, we hear about international students somehow “taking” from our education system by returning home after completing their degrees — never mind that they pay tuition, contribute to research while they’re studying and often are denied the chance to stay in the U.S. after graduation by our ridiculous immigration system. 

All of this misses the point. We should welcome immigrants because we should understand that the U.S., although deeply imperfect, is still one of the best places to live in the world, and we should want to share that with other people. We should welcome international students because our universities are some of the best in the world, and everyone deserves to learn, no matter where they come from. 

Americans, even those of us who have had the privilege of international travel, do not seem to understand what an honor it is to be the world’s most popular destination for immigrants and international students. Other countries pay immigrants to come to them. We turn away millions every year. Americans, as a rule, do not grow up dreaming of moving to another country for the sake of opportunities or civil rights. We do not understand what it means for millions of people to be willing to give up the town they grew up in, the food they love and the culture they know in order to join our society. We do not understand why students might go to the trouble of pursuing a degree in their second language, far from home, for the sake of a better education. 

This can be particularly true for American students at American universities. We meet international students, ask them (often very basic) questions about their country and don’t think too hard about the difficulties our friends face in coming to the U.S. That was never good enough, and it’s certainly not now. We must stand up for our classmates, our campus leaders, our dearest friends. 

Stanford, after initially responding to the decision to expel students in a subsection of the July 6th Re-Approaching Stanford email, did send a stand-alone message from Marc Tessier-Lavigne on July 8th making it clear that Stanford opposes the rule. Tessier-Lavigne’s message also announced that Stanford would be joining Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit challenging the rule. This response, although delayed, is a good start, but there is more to do. 

Some universities have proposed one-unit in-person classes for international students, which can help some people but is problematic for immunocompromised students who cannot risk any in-person activities and students who aren’t able to get to or live near campus. Such classes would also expose instructors to higher risk and require significant resources to implement, which will be a problem for the many universities already facing financial difficulties due to COVID-19. 

Ultimately, there is no ethical or practical way for universities to protect international students by following ICE’s guidelines. The joint lawsuit may be able to block this rule, but we should act as if it won’t. All of us should be calling our senators and representatives to express our anger and demand that they take action. All of us should be calling ICE and the Department of Homeland Security to demand that they rescind this announcement. The privilege of being American citizens comes with the responsibility of standing up for those who are not citizens. 

Contact Sarah Myers at smyers ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Sarah Myers '21 is pursuing a BA in International Relations while also studying Physics, Mandarin, and German. She enjoys writing about politics, ethics, and current events. She spends her free time reading and convincing herself that watching Chinese television counts as studying Mandarin.