Trump’s xenophobic attack on international students

July 13 – Unions representing graduate student workers, many international, organized simultaneous July 13 rallies from coast to coast in opposition to a draconian Immigration and Customs Enforcement order threatening their right to remain in the U.S.

Ultimately, a million individual international students are endangered by their second-class status as visitors in this country and vulnerable to criminalization, detention, deportation and subject to the whims of whoever is in the White House.

ICE and the Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP) announced July 6 that international students enrolled in institutions that do not plan to return to in-person instruction in the fall must leave the country. 

While this new xenophobic attack should be no surprise, it must be condemned! Trump began his presidency by terminating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status, then ordered a travel ban singling out Muslims and now he exhibits blatant racism by blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On July 8, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  sought a temporary restraining order against this new rule. The University of California followed July 9. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy announced on July 13 that the state is also suing with 17 other state AGs. 

Additional universities, the Massachusetts AG and unions, including the Union of Auto Workers, American Federation of Teachers, Service Employees Union and Communications Workers of America, have all submitted amicus briefs (documents filed by nonparticipating parties that share an interest in the outcome of the Harvard/MIT suit). This attack on international student workers — who work in labs, teach, grade, advise and write recommendation letters for undergraduate students — is also union busting, which all labor has an interest in opposing. 

Arguing a technicality 

The government is seeking to add this new restriction to the Federal Register — which contains all government agency rules and notices — and demands institutions planning to remain online confirm by July 15. Because Trump’s  administration ignored a required 30-day notice and comment period without a legitimate reason before, the Supreme Court reversed Trump’s attack on DACA recipients on June 18. The educational institutions suing the government will argue that there is no new emergency since March warranting the change for foreign students. 

The case is moving fast. California Attorney General Stacey Gartland informed an online national UAW graduate worker stewards’ meeting on July 10 that the case’s Boston judge was very unhappy that the government failed to meet its own deadlines and requested a postponement. The judge only granted the government until July 13.

Even if this latest procedural abuse gets Trump’s case tossed out of court, however, this xenophobic attack was traumatic for a million foreign students.  

The Harvard Crimson of July 10 reported “fear, anxiety and grief over a profound loss of stability” had impacted the students. Because of restrictions based on the pandemic or politics, some have no country to go to if the U.S. expels them. Such restrictions may also stop them from returning if/when in-person classes resume. An incoming Harvard first-year student from Belarus has already been denied entry. (Harvard Crimson, July 9) 

The students face unique situations depending on their degree progress, work arrangements and nation of origin. For graduate students, many who have been struggling through their unions for better working conditions, including more support for international students, the Trump edict is also an attack on union consciousness.

Division in ruling class

Trump’s attack reveals division among ruling-class factions. Institutions like Harvard and MIT want to adapt business as usual to the pandemic, avoid liability and retain the 41B international students’ contributions to the economy. (Democracy Now, July 8)

The xenophobic Trump, on the other hand, under the influence of senior immigration policy advisor Stephen Miller — regarded by many as a fascist — wants not only to force public school opening, whatever the cost, to give the appearance of normalcy, but also to show he is hard on foreigners and on  establishment universities. It’s part of his election program.

Xenophobes in the administration have long blamed immigration and visitors for public health woes even before COVID-19. Meanwhile, the bureaucrats sharply cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency. Scientific consensus is clear, however; criminalizing movement and migration makes public health worse.

This all takes place in the midst of today’s BLM rebellion. In the July 12 New York Times Sunday Review, Amna A. Akbar wrote that these uprisings “may be the largest in [U.S.] history,” and they are gaining the power needed to combat the constant attacks because “movements today see our crises as intersectional … not disconnected, discrete problems” but increasingly as “emerging from colonialism and capitalism.” 

This developing consciousness is necessary to win reprieves beyond temporary court orders, leading ultimately to a society based on borderless working-class solidarity. It will take destroying the borders within our movements, developing unions that follow programs like that of UAW opposition to xenophobia and racism. And then go on to pick up broader causes from Black Lives Matter to abolish ICE.


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