International students in the US are still facing precarity

And American educational institutions are not doing nearly enough to protect us from racism and discrimination.

Students coronavirus university USA AP photo
University of Nebraska-Lincoln students watch a tv report on the university administration's plans to resume in-person classes in the fall amid the pandemic on July 21, 2020 [AP Photo/Nati Harnik]

On July 6, in a bid to reopen United States schools and universities as soon as possible, the administration of President Donald Trump issued a directive that threw the international student community under the bus. The directive stated that unless international students enrol in at least one course that is taught in person (or transfer to a college that offers such a course), they will face consequences – including but not limited to the initiation of deportation proceedings.

The directive was met with an almost immediate backlash from US educational institutions. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Insitute of Technology (MIT) filed a joint lawsuit against the directive, with the state of California and the University of California also announcing their intention to sue Trump over the new rule. Thousands of students and professors from across the US also signed petitions demanding that the authorities reconsider their decision. Eventually, on July 14, the Trump administration rescinded the directive. 

Many perceived Trump’s about-turn on the issue as a momentous win for American academia in general and the international student community in particular, and applauded educational institutions for standing by their students.

However, few have questioned why these institutions chose to resist Trump’s demands on this particular issue or whether they are doing enough to ensure the safety and security of their international students living in a country led by an increasingly xenophobic administration in the middle of a pandemic.

International students contributed an estimated $41bn to the US economy in the 2018-19 academic year, according to the non-profit NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Almost all international undergrads pay higher tuition fees than domestic students, and their contributions make up a significant share of the tuition revenues of most top US universities. 

The truth is, American universities earn a significant amount of money from the tuition, labour and human capital that international students bring, but have done little in the past to protect them from increasingly vicious racism and discrimination.

International students contributed more than $6bn to the economy of the state of California in 2018-19 alone . The Davis campus of the University of California, of which I am a part, is not even among the top five educational institutions in the state in terms of international enrolment, and yet, it earns roughly $440m a year in tuition revenue from international students. 

Moreover, international graduate students are an important source of cheap labour for many US universities. They account for more than half of the US PhD population (PDF). Because many of them come to the US on visas that do not allow them to work outside the universities in which they are enrolled, they are forced to work as teaching assistants for abysmal wages throughout their degrees. Their labour helps increase the research and teaching output of these institutions at a minimal cost. 

At the moment, all US universities are anticipating a decline in international enrolment, and a consequent reduction in their tuition revenues, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the devastating impact it had on the global economy. They need the additional revenue and cheap labour that we generate, now, more than ever.

Before the controversial directive, US universities had repeatedly demonstrated that they saw their international students merely as a source of revenue. They did little to counter the Trump administration’s xenophobic policies that effected these students negatively – and they themselves actively resisted demands by international students for basic rights.  

For example, in February this year, the University of California (UC) fired dozens of student workers for demanding a living wage. Several international students faced the risk of deportation because of the decision. Are we now supposed to believe that the university is suddenly worried about the wellbeing of its international student community?

And even the richest universities, such as Harvard and MIT, which are not as dependent on international undergraduate tuition revenues as UC, had many reasons to resist Trump’s directive beyond protecting the rights of their students. 

As economist Richard Freeman stated in a 2009 research paper (PDF), “…with the expansion of higher education overseas, the US has come to rely extensively on the immigration of graduate students to maintain a lead position in science and technology”. Specifically, institutions like Harvard and MIT are international hubs of knowledge and prestige due to their ability to attract some of the most brilliant young minds from overseas.

Trump’s directive, if implemented, would have stopped this flow of talent. Thus, there is reason to suspect these universities resisted Trump’s directive not to protect their students, but to preserve their own image and prospects. If the MIT administration is truly invested to protect its international students, why doesn’t it start by fixing the disparate treatment these students receive when struggling with mental health? 

The inaction of these institutions in the face of threats against international students in recent years gives us plenty of reason to question the sincerity of their newfound concern for the wellbeing of their international students.

Since the start of the Trump presidency, stress and anxiety have become the norm in the average international student’s life.

When the Trump administration focussed its attention on Iran, our Iranian friends started to be harassed at US airports. When Trump introduced his “Muslim travel ban” many of our Muslim friends got stranded in their home countries, with some even being forced to delay or completely abandon their plans to receive an education in the US. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s racist comments and policies resulted in many of our Chinese friends being turned away from airports or facing racist abuse during their time in the country.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) even set up a fake university to lure international students facing immigration status problems – and then filed lawsuits against them for visa fraud. Some students ended up being deported as a result of this operation. 

The US universities that are now acting as if they have our backs did not do anything to counter these policies.  

It is clear to us that US academia, dominated by privileged white liberals, is choosing its fights very carefully. It is clear to us that US universities took action against Trump’s recent directive only because doing so suited their financial and other self-interests. It is clear to us that if it was more profitable for them, they would have happily helped ICE agents put us on a plane home.  

The US academia do not object when we are defined as “aliens”, despite critics labelling the term as dehumanising in the context of immigration. They do not mind when we pay more tuition fees on average than a domestic student, despite the same services received in return, because they benefit from such a system. They seem to be in peace with the system which on one hand denies a living wage to all teaching assistants, but in addition restricts the “aliens” from even applying for additional financial aid. We have reasons to suspect that US academia is not fighting the system, but rather a part of it. 

So, no, the Trump administration’s decision to rescind its directive is not a decisive win for the international student community. We, “the aliens” in US higher education, do not view any of this in terms of winning or losing. For now, we do not face immediate deportation if we choose not to sit in a classroom in the middle of a pandemic, but our lives are still as precarious as they have always been.  

The white, liberal flag bearers of American academia – who repeatedly failed to protect us “aliens” from a hostile administration, and refused to take action to reform a discriminatory system that takes advantage of us – cannot keep repeating the empty rhetoric of “we are in this together” simply because they helped block Trump’s directive. 

We will not be “in this together” until they choose to stand with us every single day, and not only when there is a threat to their own interests.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.