ICE’s new international student policy stokes the flames of US nationalism

With Chinese international students making up the lion's share of foreign students in the US, ICE's new policy makes them the pawns of US domestic policy.

“To the dreaded airport security,” Photo by gloom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This week, the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency (ICE) announced that international students will not be permitted to remain in the US if all their classes in the fall are online. Indeed, this policy could have a far-reaching impact on US higher education that has consistently brought in over 1 million international students for the past several years. Today, Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit with the Massachusetts district court to sue the immigration department for such an inhumane policy.

With Chinese international students making up the lion’s share of foreign students in the US, the policy puts them in the crossfire between the US and China. During the 2017-18 academic year, a staggering 360,000 Chinese international students were enrolled in American universities. This policy comes after Trump’s executive order in May to restrict visas for Chinese graduate students, citing concerns with US national security. In addition to these policies, Chinese students have already been targets of anti-Chinese racism since the pandemic began. 

ICE’s policy further ignores the fact that some Chinese international students cannot return home for their political safety. In 2017, Chinese student Yang Shuping went into hiding after her commencement speech at the University of Maryland which had become the target of attacks from Chinese state media and irate nationalist netizens. More recently in January 2020, a Chinese student studying at the University of Minnesota was jailed for six months in China for tweeting images that mocked Chinese President Xi Jinping. Under Hong Kong’s new national security laws that even target dissent abroad, student-activists from Hong Kong are at risk of being persecuted if they return home. 

US universities and liberals, alike, often value international students only for their economic contribution and their ability to “diversify” predominantly white college campuses. However, in addition to tokenizing international students, many universities are also ill equipped in meeting the needs of this community. For instance, despite high rates of mental health illness on college campuses, most do not have multilingual mental health counselors who can work with students who are less comfortable speaking English. American universities, in other words, are guilty of using international students as a prop to bolster their facade of diversity. 

For many Chinese international students this means having to take courses through the night which will not only affect their social life, but put them at a significant disadvantage in their coursework. 

Additionally, ineligible for most financial aid and scholarships, international students must pay a mandatory government fee and out-of-state tuition in order to even study in the US. Indeed, many universities see international students as a revenue source rather than as actual people who come to study while living the precarious lives of non-resident aliens. Under ICE’s new policy, international students who are forced to return home will still likely have to pay full tuition to attend online-only courses. For Chinese international students, this means navigating a twelve of thirteen-hour time difference from their peers and instructors. It will also be difficult for them to complete their coursework in a country that censors many online resources. 

ICE’s assault on international students during a pandemic highlights the different institutions and structures that have long perpetuated the marginalization of racialized (im)migrants. Against the backdrop of neoliberalism wherein people are valued only for their productivity, liberal advocates will likely mobilize economic and diversity arguments to challenge ICE’s policy. They will likely argue that international students should be allowed to stay because of their contribution to the US economy, or the diversity they bring to society. Similar arguments have been made in support of undocumented immigrants. In both cases, these arguments imply that racialized non-citizen subjects are only worthy of inclusion if they are economically productive. These claims are not only dehumanizing, but are also ableist as they measure the worthiness of one’s life by their productive value. 

Indeed, the policy itself is also ableist: forcing international students to either return home or take in-person classes (just so they can stay in the US) overlooks the risk it incurs on students who are immunocompromised or disabled. 

Facing both political persecution back home and Sinophobia in the US, students from mainland China and Hong Kong are also further connected through their shared concerns. This moment, hence, provides fertile ground for mainland Chinese and Hong Kong international students to cultivate solidarity.

These tensions highlight how racism and xenophobia have always been bolstered by US exceptionalism, nationalism, and ableism. It should also remind us that despite their specific geopolitical contexts, international students, no matter where they are from, share similar struggles against academic institutions and state policies that render their lives precarious. Rather than letting this new policy divide us, we must unite across our struggles against racism, immigration injustices, and ableism, and resist these intersecting systems of oppression.