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Perspective | Magazine

Trump is destroying the American dream for international college students

A policy that would have forced foreign students to risk their health or stop college classes could have had lasting repercussions on US higher education. It still might.

At commencement in 2013, University of Massachusetts Amherst students walk in the Parade of International Flags.
At commencement in 2013, University of Massachusetts Amherst students walk in the Parade of International Flags.Jerrey Roberts/Associated Press

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s July 6 directive made no sense. By requiring that 1 million international students either attend in-person classes this fall or leave America, it put students, faculty, and university staff at an increased health risk of exposure to COVID-19. Discriminatory and bad for the economy, it could have had lasting repercussions on America’s higher education sector. It still might.

The Trump administration rescinded the policy eight days later following heavy opposition and numerous lawsuits. But one thing had become clear: As foreign students, our lives and bodies were expendable — we were political pawns, even as coronavirus cases soared.

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I grew up in India but came of age in America when I moved to Worcester at 17 to study engineering. This country has given me a lot: friends, mentors, an open space to discuss ideas, the courage to question my biases, and the opportunity to meet people from around the world. All this was made possible by my F-1 student visa. This visa has also been a constant source of stress.

Despite substantial investments of time and money, foreign students like me worry we’ll be forced to leave our education midstream. Graduation starts a countdown: We have to find jobs before the 60-day grace period expires. And we worry: Under a fickle Trump administration, what will happen to the Optional Practical Training program, which lets foreign students work in the United States for a short time after graduation?

In the immigration hierarchy, foreign students are still privileged, the ones universities will speak up for, if only because of the tuition price tags on our backs.

Higher education is America’s fifth largest services export to the world. In the 2018-2019 academic year, international students contributed nearly $41 billion to the US economy and helped support more than 485,000 jobs, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. For every 10 international students enrolled in American universities, roughly four US jobs are created and supported through their spending on education, rent, food, retail, and more, NAFSA estimates.

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Foreign students are more likely to pay full tuition, providing US universities with funding that many use to cross-subsidize the education of American students. A decline in international enrollment could lead to a tuition increase for US-born students, particularly as state governments cut budgets due to COVID-19, leaving universities with fewer funding alternatives.

International students spend tens of thousands of dollars in search of the American dream, only to find it elusive because of an increasingly restrictive immigration system. Still, they come to America because the allure of the dream has remained — until now.

According to a recent analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy, a public policy research organization, international student enrollment this fall could be the lowest since World War II. It’s projected to decline 63 percent to 98 percent from 2018-2019 levels, due to the lack of clarity around immigration and travel, US Consulate closures, travel bans, and other policies — and now, coronavirus.

“The decline in enrollment predates COVID-19 and can be attributed to government policies in the last three years, primarily through visa denials,” says Lawrence M. Schall, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, a regional accreditation agency for colleges and universities. “What COVID has done is significantly accelerate this trend.”

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As international student enrollment in the United States dropped by more than 10 percent from 2015 to 2019, Canada witnessed a rapid growth — over 82 percent. Some have termed it the “Trump bump,” and it’s losing this country money. The decline in international student enrollment since fall 2016 has cost the US economy $11.8 billion and over 65,000 jobs, according to NAFSA.

After its ban on international students was foiled, ICE released a narrower version on July 24 barring only newly enrolled foreign students from coming to America if they take fully online classes. Harvard University, which had fought the earlier student ban, acquiesced quickly and announced that incoming international freshmen wouldn’t be permitted on campus this fall, citing “federal visa restrictions.” They would have to take classes online from their home countries or defer enrollment. Harvard’s policy turns a blind eye to limitations faced by students in their home countries, from different time zones to poor or no Internet access. This puts freshmen foreign students at a disadvantage from their peers yet requires them to pay the same or higher tuition.

Immigrant students are generally led to believe that if we do everything right, we’ll be accepted in this country. As this dream of assimilation crumbles, many are reevaluating what their silence meant and whether it was worth it when the Trump administration came for Muslims with the Muslim travel ban, put children in cages at the border, and to this day, tries to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

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This administration’s crusade against immigration, during a global health crisis that has killed more than 160,000 people in this country, has undermined America’s economic and moral leadership abroad. Recent events have exposed the precarious nature of even legal immigration in the United States, with students reduced to bargaining chips. I’m halfway through my graduate degree in economics and one of the first lessons we were taught was that economics is the study of choices. Clearly, the choice between risking exposure to a deadly virus or leaving education halfway through is no choice at all.

Public pressure culminating in the ban’s rescission demonstrates that there are still those willing to fight for international students. Nevertheless, as protections and stability around legal immigration fall apart, it may be time for more international students to take their brain power — and tuition dollars — elsewhere.

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Bansari Kamdar is a freelance journalist and researcher in Boston who specializes in South Asian political economy, gender, and security issues. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.