What’s so perplexing about the Trump administration’s attempted interference with international students is the absence of any sensible motive. Just what was the government trying to accomplish when it threatened to deport foreign students?
Colleges and universities queued up to block the maneuver in court, and the administration quickly reached a settlement with Harvard and MIT. For now the danger has passed, but that does not mean no harm was done. It’s worth examining the episode and the possible motives.
The simplest explanation is that the administration was seeking, in every way possible, to declare the COVID-19 pandemic finished. The initiative announced last week would have mandated that students from other countries transfer or go home if the college they attend offers only online classes this fall. Colleges were already under pressure to bring students back to campus; students and their families have balked at paying in-person tuition rates for remote instruction. Schools that shifted their academic programs online last spring did so for one reason: The pandemic made gathering in person dangerous.
It’s still dangerous. Prudent planners have long suspected that a second wave of COVID-19 might be coming in the fall. The benefit of their caution is now apparent: Here we are in the middle of July, and we’ve not yet gotten through the first wave. The best course might well be to keep students in their homes as much as possible. Now, thankfully, schools are free to put the health and safety of staff and students first.
Another possible explanation for the administration’s attempted assault on international students is the political benefit to the president’s re-election campaign. Stoking fear and resentment of foreigners has worked for Donald Trump before. Attempting to defend the visa maneuver, an administration official cast foreign students in a suspicious light:
“If they’re not going to be a student, or if they’re going to be 100% online, then they don’t have a basis to be here,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of homeland security director, said in an interview with CNN. He suggested that students whose classes had moved online might be in the U.S. fraudulently. “I don’t frankly follow why a student visa holder would be here if their school wasn’t functioning,” he said.
No? Maybe it’s because of the difficulty in international travel during the pandemic. Or the uncertain prospect of being allowed back into the U.S. once in-person classes resume. Or the uneven quality of internet service in other countries. Or the complications of taking classes from another time zone, or on the other side of the international date line. And there’s always the possibility that an international student might have developed social relationships while at school in the U.S., and might even have begun to feel an affinity for the U.S. itself.
Admittedly, that last possibility may be diminishing. “If they really don’t want me here — and the administration has made that very clear in a number of ways — maybe I shouldn’t have come,” a doctoral student from Spain told the New York Times.
Such sentiment represents a failure of the U.S. to capitalize on one of the benefits that come with foreign students: the potential for making lasting friendships abroad. Just as important, many of those foreign students remain in the U.S. and become important contributors to the U.S. economy — among them: Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla; the late I.M. Pei, noted architect; and Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger. NAFSA, a group that advocates for international education, calculates the economic contribution of foreign students to the U.S. economy at $41 billion a year; Minnesota’s slice of that pie is estimated at $482 million.
Hostility to higher education?
Maybe that should just be “hostility to education.” In recent weeks Trump had threatened not only colleges, but also K-12 schools that are hesitant to resume in-person instruction this fall. On Twitter last Friday, the president accused “Universities and School Systems” of “Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education.” He threatened his targets with loss of tax status and federal funding. Similarly, deporting foreign students would have represented a significant financial hit for colleges.
Whatever the president’s motives may have been, he’s given international students a fascinating demonstration of American politics. Let’s hope they remember the happy outcome more than the hostility shown them by the president and his supporters.