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COMMUNITY VIEW | A student visa crisis (not) averted points to the need for vigilance

Three YSU professors discuss fighting for the rights of international students and all immigrants: "A crisis only partially averted proves that when we join together in action, we can protect the most vulnerable and defend our highest ideals."
Langarica_Labendz_Pettitt 07162020
From left, Alicia Prieto Langarica, Jacob Ari Labendz and Nicole Pettitt.

We must remain vigilant in the face of federal policies — whether proposed or actually implemented — that have created chaotic life conditions and insecurity in the lives of newcomers to the United States and their communities, and which seek to close our country to students, asylum seekers, refugees, workers and future Americans. 

A crisis only partially averted proves that when we join together in action, we can protect the most vulnerable and defend our highest ideals. Yet, as we note below, much work remains to be done, especially as the federal government seeks to recover lost ground in the face of defeat.

Earlier this month, in the midst of a pandemic, the federal government attempted to leverage international student visas in an effort to force colleges and universities to hold face-to-face courses in fall 2020. On July 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rescinded a policy that permitted international students to maintain their visas — to remain in or return to the United States — even if their programs had shifted to online instruction due to the pandemic.

The earlier policy had been in place since COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in March, and it was to have remained “in effect for the duration of the emergency.” 

The national emergency is still in place, COVID-19 numbers continue to rise, yet the federal government attempted to backtrack on its earlier policy, creating dilemmas and adversity in the lives and careers of over 1 million international students in the U.S.

This policy change would have come at great cost to international students, as well as to their host institutions and communities. International students whose universities or colleges went fully online would have faced the choice of transferring to another institution — which may not have been possible — or departing the country. 

Students who could not arrange to transfer and who failed to leave may have been subject to deportation and, potentially, a 10-year ban on re-entry to the U.S. This chilling prospect was made worse by the reality that some would have faced difficulties returning to their countries of citizenship due to cost, travel restrictions and even the threat of political reprisal.

Graduating students, moreover, would have lost the option of extending their stay to find U.S.-based employment for a number of years. This work helps international students recover some of the tuition and fees that they pay annually to our universities while filling roles in industries with noted shortages of highly skilled workers. 

The policy reversal also would have hurt U.S. institutions of higher learning. International students, who currently compose 5.5 percent of our national student body, and 350 students from 50 countries at Youngstown State University, contribute immeasurably to our academic and local communities in terms of intellectual production and cultural diversity. Through them, we build lasting ties around an ever-shrinking world. 

We thought this measure had been defeated on  July 14, when the administration backed down after it was met with a wave of lawsuits, including one brought on July 7 by Harvard and MIT, which was further backed by an amicus brief signed by 179 institutions, including the Ohio State University. Additional suits were filed by other institutions of higher learning. The Massachusetts attorney general filed a case on behalf of a 17-state coalition that opposed the July 6 measure. 

In short, it seemed that due to the efforts of activists and university administrators, international students would be permitted to retain their visas and remain in the USA no matter the mode of course delivery chosen by their colleges and universities this fall.

The celebrations were short-lived. Friday evening, NPR reported that the COVID-19 accommodations now will apply only to students who currently hold visas or who are already in the U.S., confirming reporting from two days earlier.  New visa applicants, however, will still have to show that their program of study includes significant face-to-face instruction. 

This policy flip-flop means that incoming and already accepted international students, who have made arrangements to move internationally and enroll in U.S. institutions, have been betrayed, their lives upended. We worry also for students who have just completed their undergraduate degrees in the USA, some of whom had likely hoped to continue on in this country for an advanced degree. Unfortunately, this would require a new and now unavailable visa. The administration has unilaterally deprived our universities and communities of all of these students’ presence. 

We also must be clear. We support immigrants and international students not because we hope to derive something from them, but because doing so is just and right.

In light of what may now, at best, be considered a partial and precarious victory, we must remain both attentive and active. And there are many fronts to watch.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump stated, “I’m going to be signing a major immigration bill as an executive order,” after the Supreme Court rejected his bid to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, an Obama-era policy that protects Dreamers, immigrants brought to this country as children without documentation and who grew up as Americans in the U.S.

Despite the ruling, the administration has continued a practice from 2017 of blocking, or acknowledging without processing, new DACA applications, a move that has already affected tens of thousands of young people. Significantly, while seeking to end DACA, the administration also attempted to leverage the program in exchange for border-wall funding. In an odd twist, the president recently stated that he may offer a path to citizenship for Dreamers, but then backtracked. While we support citizenship for Dreamers, we cannot allow such a proposal to whitewash the administration’s history of restricting immigration, nor may we allow the administration once again to use Dreamers as bargaining chips. 

Vigilance requires attention not only to statements by the president that have disparaged groups of immigrants and their countries of origin but also to policies enacted by the administration. The president has stated that he supports immigrants, provided that they immigrate legally. Yet he has paired his statements in support of legal immigrants with measures that have limited the scope of legal immigration for many populations. 

For instance, under the cover of the pandemic, the administration has selectively suspended multiple types of work visas, temporarily ceased issuing new green cards and has overseen a significant reduction in the number of green cards printed, creating considerable challenges for new, would-be and longtime residents. Additionally, legal asylum seekers, who normally are permitted to await hearings in-country, have either been forced to await hearings in Mexico or, worse, interred on the southern border in what some scholars have called concentration camps, separating parents from their children and spouses from one another. 

Since the president took office, his administration has also lowered the cap on admissions for legal refugees, from 85,000 to an all-time low of 18,000.  He has also been clear that he opposes the human right to family reunification, protected both in our national laws and in international conventions to which the U.S. is a signatory. The administration has further taken advantage of a Cold War-era amendment intended to protect religious minorities to prioritize the admission of refugees who are white-European and Christian. To that end, we also note Trump’s repeated attempts to ban visitors from Muslim-majority countries, which align with comments he has made, such as, “I think Islam hates us.”

If this unsettles you, we encourage you to take pride that we live in a democratic country where we can and must speak truth to power; take comfort in the fact that the current administration regularly backs down in the face of resistance. Then take action to pressure the administration into good governance.

Here is what you can do: Stay informed by following the social media accounts of organizations dedicated to disseminating reliable information about immigration laws and immigrants' rights, such as the American Immigration Council. Help keep others informed by spreading their messages. Donate to them if you have the means. Contact your state and federal representatives regularly. If you’ve never reached out before, here is some advice for writing to elected officials.

We can be most effective when we act locally, as many of our friends around the Mahoning Valley did in response to ICE raids in Sandusky and Salem, the effects of which continue to be felt strongly in those communities. Our friends and neighbors also offered support to asylum seekers released after wrongful internment in the CoreCivic prison right in our backyards. 

We also recommend supporting local groups like HOLA Ohio, which provides education and advocacy around immigration in our area. If you know international students, reach out. Ask how you can help and provide support, especially during these difficult times. Donate to the YSU student food pantry. You do not even have to leave the comfort of your home. Over 30 students — including international students — have needed to continue living on campus through the pandemic, relying on the generosity of the Youngstown-area community for food and supplies.

YSU professors were prepared to do their part to advocate for international students. Thirty-four faculty members signed on to a letter protesting the aforementioned visa-policy changes. During the brief interlude in which we believed that we had achieved a victory and the present moment, the letter was withdrawn. We will continue to remain vigilant and ready to join you in action.

— Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz is the Clayman Assistant Professor at YSU, where he directs the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies. His research focuses on the intersections of nationalism, antisemitism, and governance in recent history. In 2019, he co-published an edited volume with Shmuly Yanklowitz, “Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism: Studies and New Directions.”

— Dr. Nicole Pettitt is an Assistant Professor at YSU, where she teaches courses in Linguistics and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Her research centers on the educational experiences of immigrant- and refugee-background students in the US.  She is part of an international research team investigating how knowledge and belonging are constructed in multilingual classrooms.

— Dr. Alicia Prieto Langarica is a Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at YSU. Her research is in the intersection of mathematics and biology, specifically problems related to the medical field and in mathematical modeling of epidemics. Recently she started conducting research in data science and public policy.

The views expressed are those of the authors alone and are not necessarily shared by Mahoning Matters, YSU or any of its academic or administrative units.

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