In recent months, the anxiety of separation and uncertainty caused by Covid-19 has become a chronic part of the lives of college students. The news that assaulted us on July 6 served to worsen things drastically. American immigration authorities modified visa regulations for international students. Holders of F-1 student visas at universities that have moved all classes for the Fall semester online would be banned from re-entering the US, and would face expulsion if already in the country. This puts hundreds of thousands of students in jeopardy.
More than a million international students study at American universities, including around 200,000 Indians. I am one of these, studying for my bachelor’s degree in New York City. I am grateful to have the opportunity to participate in America’s rich academic tradition – and I am dismayed by the naked political opportunism of this decision and its willful disregard for the wellbeing of students.
The decision has sent shockwaves through the American academic community, and the response from universities and students alike has been immediate and vocal. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the order. A petition demanding that international students be permitted to stay in the US despite an online semester has gathered over 240,000 signatures.
The president of my university has expressed his outrage in an email to the campus community. “The destructive and indefensible purpose driving these policies is by now all too familiar, as is the resulting damage to the nation’s academic institutions,” he wrote, pledging to oppose the “deeply misguided” decision.
It truly is all too familiar by this point. The American immigration authorities have not given any sort of comprehensive explanation for the decision. It is left to us to speculate: is this a tactic to force universities into opening their campuses for the Fall, a cause for which US President Donald Trump has lately been advocating in all-caps tweets?
Or is it a symbolic gesture, a lifting of the burden we have placed on America by our desire to study there, a freeing of the space we occupy? What purpose could be possibly be served by expelling students who have come from all over the world, attracted by America’s glittering academic stature? Why hurt young people for no apparent practical benefit?
Cultivating the mind
Other popular destinations for international students have been taking note of America’s inward turn. Under former prime minister Theresa May, Britain’s government barely hid its contempt for foreign students, whom it flung out soon after graduation. Boris Johnson’s administration, however, has revised the rules governing student visas to allow students to stay for two years after they graduate. The government has also reassured international students that, if their universities move online, the change will not affect their post-study working rights.
America has been turning in the opposite direction. Its incessant strangulation of immigrants and foreign students has exacerbated an atmosphere of hostility to outsiders. BR Ambedkar, the most famous Indian graduate of the institution I attend, argued that the “cultivation of mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence”. It is curious and appalling to see the country that played such an important role in his education become an angry and lumbering enemy of the lovers of learning.
The pandemic and the subsequent changes to university instruction are circumstances beyond the control of students. To respond by ordering international students to leave the country is hostile, counterproductive, and indicative of a general attitude of aggression towards non-citizens.
Hurting the vulnerable
Many international students in America come from countries where they cannot easily return – war-torn, or poverty-stricken, or engulfed by Covid-19 infections. Forcibly returning people to such places would be contentious at the best of times; to send back international students en masse because of decisions taken in the interest of public health is morally indefensible. It will disproportionately affect those who are already most vulnerable: most of those students who were able to do so returned to their home countries months ago.
There is an increasing divergence between the safety of cloistered college campuses, where administrations have vowed to protect their international and undocumented students, and the increasing hostility of the “real” America that lies beyond campus gates, where everyone else is subject to government rules without exception, no matter how onerous they may be.
This divide should not have to exist. International students contribute to their host countries with their academic output, their volunteering, and their spending. America, with its outsize reach on the world stage, should nurture and encourage students from abroad to study there – not alienate them with needless hostility. Let us get on with what we came to do. Poor indeed is a society that seeks to punish those who seek to learn.
Aditya Sharma is a freelance writer and a student at Columbia University, New York. His Twitter handle is @AdityaNSharma.