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The New Book-Burning: International Students in the Age of Trump

A letter from a Ph.D. candidate at UTD
UT Dallas campus

I moved to Dallas in 1978 because my dad took a job teaching biochemistry at UTD (which was then a two-year college) and moved our family here from California. So my eyes perked up today when I got an email from Aaron Cummings, who is working toward a Ph.D. at UTD in the history of ideas. Cummings can put some words together. You should read what he has to say about the idiotic, anti-American move ICE is making to kick out of the country international students who can’t attend in-person classes because of the pandemic. Find the time:


“The New Book-Burning: International Students in the Age of Trump”
By Aaron Cummings

To all my fellow Texans who — by virtue of birth, naturalization, cosmic accident, Providence, or whatever — happen to be American citizens, my international student friends could really use your help. Why am I asking you? International students do not have the privilege of voting in the United States. It is up to us as Americans to keep this country true to the values that have attracted bright minds to these shores for generations.

I am a Ph.D. student at the UTD, the leading destination for international students in the Lone Star State. My day job involves teaching English as a second language at UTD’s Naveen Jindal School of Management (named, I should note, for a former international student). The last few days have been rough for both my international Ph.D.-student friends and my own students, because F-1 visa holders are being unfairly hassled by ICE. Across the United States, international students have been hit — completely out of the blue — by the latest ill-conceived scheme from the Trump administration. On July 6, ICE/SEVP suddenly revised its guidelines for student visas with the intent to deport international students if their university were to attempt to protect their lives and health by moving all classes online during the fall in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The nature of this threat is bad enough, but the timing makes ICE’s move potentially catastrophic.

Throughout the summer, all over the United States, universities have been trying to find the safest way to open in the fall. One common option has been to conduct fall semester class meetings online (like we have been doing all summer) so that students and faculty are not all crammed cheek to jowl in classrooms, breathing germs on each other.

With only about a month to go, just as universities were finalizing their plans (and, more important, students were finalizing theirs: signing leases, renting apartments, choosing classes, et cetera), ICE recklessly threw everyone’s plan into chaos. ICE did so pointlessly, for no good reason (literally the ICE policy update gives no reason whatsoever for the decision. The un-elected officials at this agency simply issued a diktat).

Because UTD offers students a choice between online and in-person classes, UTD’s student body is not as badly affected as universities that had elected to go online only (as had Harvard, for example). However, the ICE decision still deprives UTD international students of that important choice. Further, even if all international students were fine with attending classes in-person, the logistics of social distancing mean there is simply nowhere to put UTD’s 9,000 international students safely on our suburban campus. Granted, UTD offers a “hybrid” model (part-online, part-offline) that should be safe-ish, but even so, students taking hybrid classes are having to scramble to get new I-20 paperwork to meet the new ICE requirements. What is more, faculty and staff have been planning for a semester expected to happen mostly online — now UTD must suddenly scramble to ensure there are enough on-campus/hybrid spaces for all our international students (did I mention UTD has 9,000 of them?).

Hanging over all of this is the looming threat that COVID-19 cases could spike again mid-semester, potentially forcing classes entirely online again. What are the international students supposed to do then?

Now, I know somewhere, someone is saying, “Yeah, but if classes are online, can’t students just finish the fall semester in their home country?” Not necessarily, for several reasons. Before I get to those reasons, though, I want to shift the burden of argument for a moment: Why should there be a need to go looking for a workaround in the first place? It is ICE’s responsibility to establish a why and a how — and they have done neither. However, if one insists on pushing the burden of argument onto students, here are a few things that are blatantly obvious. (I should state again, clearly, that I am not an international student. My point in stating what follows is not to speak for F-1 visa holders, but to support my international Ph.D. student friends — and my own students — by speaking out on this issue as an American Ph.D. student and ESL instructor.)

First, just because the classes themselves are meeting online does not mean the university’s physical campus has become irrelevant: depending on the program, students may still need to access the laboratories, library, and other resources. (For example, imagine being a chemistry major whose classes meet online but who needs access to the lab for research). Fortunately, unlike class meetings, most research involves small-scale operations (in terms of number of bodies in a room), and can be conducted relatively safely in person — but students need access in the first place.

Second, while Americans may take it for granted that the internet as we experience it here in America is the same all over the world, that is not the case. Many countries take action to regulate the internet. China, for example, blocks Google’s G-suite (no Googling! But also no Google Drive, Gmail, YouTube, et cetera). For that matter, students may not have internet access in their home country. There is also the sheer logistical issue of having to cancel internet here (costs money), reconnect there, and so on — not everyone has the cash to do that, especially after the sudden costs of deportation (more on that later).

Third, there is the issue of time zones. While many classes meet asynchronously (students can log in to view lectures and complete projects at any time of day), others still meet synchronously. Dallas is 10 time zones away from Delhi. Taking Principles of Accounting at 2 a.m. is not going to be fun!

Fourth, there is the logistical nightmare of it all. The UTD semester starts August 17; that is only a little more than a month away. Keep in mind that most international students are graduate students. In other words, rather than 18- to 22-year-olds who might be able to move in with Mom and Dad if things go badly in the U.S., many graduate students are grown adults (often married, sometimes with kids). They generally uproot their entire lives to come here and study. Not a few have quit jobs back home — the ship has sailed, the bridge has burned. By July, many students will have rented an apartment, usually on a one-year lease that cannot be canceled without forfeiting a fortune. They have chosen their classes (maybe all online ones — “Uh oh, not anymore,” some are thinking. “Will I still graduate on time, before the money runs out? Will the class I need be available in person? If so, will there be room for me?”). Some have even bought a car and taken the U.S. driving test. On top of all that, their home countries may not be allowing people in from the U.S. (since we apparently cannot control COVID-19), and for those that are, the reduced flights available the midst of a pandemic are often insanely expensive. Losing everything at the drop of a hat in accordance with the whims of Trump’s twitter feed or ICE’s professional xenophobes could mean de facto homelessness.

Fifth, there is the cost in terms of sheer human feeling. Keep in mind that an undergraduate degree takes 4 years to complete, a master’s, 2, and a Ph.D., as much as 6 years. Think of the undergraduate senior who has made many friends here (socially distanced friends, for the moment, but also their social support network). Put yourself in the place of an international Ph.D. student in year five of six. How are you feeling now?

Sixth, and finally, making life difficult for international students comes at a tremendous cost to the United States. This cost can be broken into dual parts: economic and spiritual. I will begin with the economic cost; after all, this is the land of the Almighty Dollar, and anyway I cannot count on Trump’s supporters having a soul or a conscience.

Let me get one thing out of the way now: international students are not taking American students’ jobs: F-1 visas place tight restrictions on international students’ ability to work in the U.S. while still in school. Rather, F-1 visa holders boost the economic pie for America as a whole. In fact, “international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.” Furthermore, international students pay higher tuition (at state schools) than their American counterparts. In an era when U.S. states are deliberately defunding their own universities, and have been doing so at an increasing rate ever since the 2008 recession, U.S. colleges have made up for the lost state dollars with international student dollars. (At UTD, for the 2020-2021 school year, tuition for Texan undergraduates runs approximately $7,500 for a 15-credit semester. Meanwhile, international students pay over $21,000 for the same instruction.) At a time when inflation is driving college tuition ever higher, international students essentially subsidize their American counterparts. Think about it, cash-strapped Americans: international students are lowering your taxes AND your kid’s tuition!

On top of the impact on universities, international students boost the local economy: they pay rent to an American landlord, buy at American supermarkets, patronize local restaurants, and so on.

What’s more, the localized economic benefits of hosting international students are particularly noticeable in those small college towns hidden away in places where the regional university is an economic engine surrounded by hollowed-out post-industrial wasteland. In addition to the immediate benefit of student dollars, in such areas education is the best chance for the town to renovate itself by building its human capital. Was it not precisely these left-behind areas that the Trump voters wanted to make great again?

This problematic hints at the most important cost to attacks on international students: the spiritual cost. I use the word “spiritual” in the sense of Geist — the German philosophy term that means both “spirit” and “mind,” and can denote the culturally mediated mindset that that animates individuals, families, artistic creations, political entities, and ultimately an entire civilization. The term has a troubled and controversial history, in part because a national mindset can become a force for evil. In the previous century, two world wars and the Shoah made clear the negative possibilities of Geist, but one should not ignore that which the term names. The fact is that a nation cannot help having a de facto spirit expressed in the form of the treatment accorded via political and cultural institutions to the humans that call that country home. A country that welcomes the brightest minds from all over the planet is a country that is mentally flourishing. When the Nazis took over Germany and Austria, they forced out many students, professors, and other nerdy folk. America’s universities and research institutions welcomed the likes of Albert Einstein and (many more). I should be clear: while America was a refuge for many fleeing the Holocaust, the nation and its universities could have done much in the 1930s and ’40s. Still, the USA was the destination of choice for intellectuals fleeing Hitler, and with good reason.

The point of the paragraph-long history lesson is that international students can be seen as canaries in the cultural coal mine. There are certain cultural phenomena — book burnings, for instance — that serve only the forces of ignorance and prejudice. In the recently eclipsed days of print, books were prized for their idea-inspiring energy. The information age, when existing ideas are readily accessible online, has reminded us where the ideas came from in the first place: not from spontaneous generation among yellowed pages, but from living human knowledge-creators. University library archives seek out significant books from all over the world, and a classic’s vintage pages received a curator’s care. How much more care should be expended on attracting and valuing our nations’ universities’ living idea-creators?

With the benefit of hindsight, historians use the flow of students across borders to track cultural shifts. Cities and countries that welcome foreign intellectual talent become the cultural, scientific, and economic capitals of their respective eras: Walter Benjamin, a twentieth-century refugee to France from Nazi-controlled Germany, called Paris the “Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Benjamin was not a naive fan of the city — his writings also highlight the sense of dislocation caused by progress in modern Paris. So what, despite its shortcomings, made the modernizing Paris of the 1800s the “capital” of an entire era? Benjamin had his own reasons, but I would like Americans to consider the case of an early international student, Samuel Morse, circa 1830. The future American inventor of the telegraph (you know, Morse code), Morse was welcomed to study in France, where he dedicated his energies to painting (of all things!). That a painter, an inventor, and an international student were all combined in the same package should come as no surprise. Where creative minds rub together, sparks fly — in culture, but also in technology and science. Thanks to bright international students like Morse, Paris in the 1830s was on its way to becoming known as the City of Light. Conversely, nations that push away bright minds will remain in self-imposed darkness.

America is making the choice, right how, about whether to burn the books and switch off the lights.

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