OPINION: In light of ICE’s ruling, 5Cs should go beyond the bare minimum to support international students

International students are waking up from the American dream. It is a rude awakening, and many are wondering why we didn’t see this coming a long time ago.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program, a branch of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, recently issued a ruling requiring international students on F-1 visas to take at least one in-person course in the fall semester to remain in the U.S. At a time when many colleges are announcing the decision to go completely online for the fall, this ruling puts international students currently in the U.S. at risk of deportation.

The message from ICE rings loud and clear, and is part of a broader attitude of the current federal administration towards immigrants — you are not welcome. Your presence within the U.S. is subject to our whims, and you can obtain a visa just as quickly as you can be deported.

After four years of studying in America, I have grown used to defending my decision when my friends and relatives from back home disparage the country as being full of bigotry and xenophobia. In the past, I would dismiss these sweeping stereotypes, confidently proclaiming that a country shouldn’t be judged by its worst few. They had never lived here. They didn’t know what they were talking about. America at its best was dynamic, open and inclusive.

In recent months, defending America is getting harder and harder to do. 

We are witnessing a new form of institutionalized discrimination in the U.S., where the federal administration is using international students as a tool to achieve its own political ends. It seems to be operating under the impression that by threatening international students as a lucrative source of income, they can pressure colleges to ignore health risks and open in the fall. 

But the fact that international students do not qualify for federal aid does not mean they are significantly better off compared to their domestic counterparts. The harmful stereotype that all international students are financially privileged leads to the exclusion of non-U.S. students from fundings and opportunities, and the withdrawal of valuable institutional support. It creates the false impression that all international students have the financial resources and social capital at their disposal when they are disproportionately impacted by policy decisions. 

Many of my international friends at the Claremont Colleges are low-income, first generation students who would not have been able to study in the U.S. without financial aid. They stay on campus and work during the summer to support themselves and their families. Yet due to the nature of the pandemic, their lives have been continuously disrupted.

Pomona College recently issued a statement saying that they will be reaching out to international students in the coming days with further information on how they plan to handle the crisis. Meanwhile, the international community waits in trepidation. 

While individually addressing the needs of each student is important, the Pomona administration should also provide a concrete overarching plan for international students. It should not repeat the same mistakes made during the housing crisis in March, when countless students were kicked out of stable housing after having their applications to stay on-campus denied, and the rationale was not communicated clearly.

Any plan should go above and beyond simply providing a guarantee of legal status and OPT eligibility for short-term employment after graduation. For example, international students who remain in the U.S. should be offered access to safe and affordable housing, as well as medical resources such as COVID-19 tests.

The colleges should work with students who choose to return to their home countries to book flights and arrange travel. In light of the global border restrictions, many students are worried about the prospect of not being able to return to the U.S., if the colleges decide to adopt a hybrid or in-person instruction model in Spring 2021. Contingency plans should be set up to account for this scenario. 

Schools such as Harvard and MIT have filed suit against ICE to attempt to block its ruling. Students and professors have launched petitions asking their colleges to establish one-credit in-person classes. The Claremont Colleges should follow suit and take an active rather than reactionary approach to protecting one of its most vulnerable student populations.

With the continued spread of COVID-19 and the upcoming presidential elections, we are in the midst of one of the most volatile periods in American history. While it is impossible to anticipate any and all future developments, the Claremont Colleges should actively invite international students into conversations on how to best address their needs during this time. These discussions should not end with the resolution of this crisis, but continue into the semester.

How the colleges choose to treat their most vulnerable students in this moment will define us for years to come. Failure to come up with an adequate response will send the message that international students will always be treated as an afterthought. 

Now is the time to put the colleges’ rhetoric of diversity and inclusivity into practice. 

Your move, Claremont.

Annie Wan PO ’20 is from Beijing, China. One of her favorite quarantine pastimes has been watching reruns of the West Wing and indulging in fantasies of an alternate political reality.

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