The independent news organization of Duke University

Duke must protect international students from ICE

guest letter

This past Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced changes to their Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP). These changes forbid students with F-1 and M-1 visas from remaining in the United States while attending universities that have converted to entirely online classes to curb the spread of COVID-19. Thus, students in programs that have transitioned to online are forced either to depart the country or transfer to a school with an in-person program. ICE’s new policy extends the State Department’s decision to not issue visas to current and new students enrolled in schools conducting all classes online this fall. As an increasing number of countries and the European Union implement restrictions on travel in response to COVID-19 and prohibit travel from the United States, these rules put international students in an impossible position: travel during a pandemic, stay and risk deportation, or expose themselves to a deadly virus in the classroom.

The Duke Graduate Students Union strongly condemns ICE’s extraordinarily harmful and exclusionary decision. The modification to the exemption policy put into effect by the Trump administration threatens our community and builds on a recent string of organized attacks against foreign nationals seeking to live, study, or work in the United States. ICE's new policy dehumanizes international students, forcing them to make a choice that domestic students do not have to consider: protect their health and safety or continue their education in the United States. Insofar as it penalizes foreign nationals in ways that would be deemed unethical if applied to American citizens, ICE's decision is punitive and xenophobic. 

For graduate students specifically, being forced to leave the United States would impede their ability to conduct independent research and work with research teams, gain pedagogical experience as instructors and teaching assistants, and perform other work essential to university life. Furthermore, if based abroad, many international graduate students would not be eligible for compensatory pay and would therefore be deprived of at least half their income. For international students who are currently abroad and whose US degree programs are in-person, the ICE rules will require them to return to the US. However, many foreign nationals are currently prohibited from entering the country. Demanding the impossible, ICE will require students to cross borders that the federal government has closed to them. For these and other reasons, we denounce the new policy and join nationwide demands for its immediate repeal.

Advanced degree programs, such as an MA or a PhD, can last anywhere between two and eight years, requiring students to plant roots in the United States for the duration of their studies. While here, many graduate students sign leases, buy cars, take loans, get credit cards, pay taxes and form long-term partnerships. Some have children. Following ICE's new guidelines would require them to uproot their entire lives within a matter of weeks, with no preparation. If Duke switches to online classes at any point during the fall semester (as it did in the spring), our international colleagues will immediately lose their visa status. They will be forced to abandon their homes here and hurry to leave the US in fear of prosecution and removal by the immigration authorities—thanks to policy decisions and rapidly changing public health concerns that are entirely out of their control. If they don’t, and are instead formally deported, they may be barred from returning to the United States for ten years.

This is a cruel situation that no one should have to face, especially during a global public health crisis that has made moving, traveling, and relocating not only incredibly difficult and expensive, but also outright dangerous. 

International students from low-income backgrounds, as well as those who come from countries experiencing unrest, conflict, or humanitarian crises, will be especially impacted by this ruling. Students may have unreliable internet connection or unfavorable learning conditions in their home countries; given the short notice, they may be forced to return to homes that are unsafe. We are already hearing stories from our colleagues in higher education about LGBTQ international students who, if forced to leave the United States, may face violence in their home countries. Others who lack financial resources to purchase last-minute flights risk being stranded while trying to make their way back to their home countries, given widespread travel restrictions and border closures. While many international students pay tuition in the United States, contributing roughly $41 billion to the economy, the most marginalized students will bear the burden of ICE's decisions and universities' complicity with them.

International students, and all non-citizens at Duke, are equal members of our community. As an organization that is dedicated to improving the conditions of all Duke's graduate students as they work, research, and study at our institution, we demand that Duke takes immediate, concrete, and sustained action to protect the international members of our community. Other universities have already made commitments to change their policies so international students can continue their studies safely, and Duke must do the same. 

In addition to changing classroom policies, we call on Duke to use its financial and political resources to better support its international students. Duke’s political lobbyists and partner institutions must be committed to overturning this new ICE policy.

Additionally, Duke must do more to provide financial resources for international graduate students struggling to find funding to complete their degrees in a timely manner. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has limited employment opportunities for international students whose ability to earn money is already restricted to on-campus jobs because of visa requirements. Payment for graduate and undergraduate student workers must be maintained, even if regulations restrict their employment, and all PhD students should receive an additional year of guaranteed funding to account for research delays. Other obstacles to degree completion, especially punitive Graduate School continuation fees, must be abolished permanently and immediately.

Duke University is defined and strengthened by the thousands of international undergraduate and graduate students in our community. Nearly half of the students in the graduate school join us from over 100 different nations. The Trump administration’s decisions will harm these students and harm our community, but these new policies are only a few of many obstacles international students and workers must overcome when studying in the United States. Duke can and must do more to protect and support international students.

Anastasia Kārkliņa is an international student, a sixth-year PhD Candidate in the Program in Literature, and 2014 Duke alumna. Matthew Taft is an international student, a sixth-year PhD Candidate in the English Department. Jonathan Behrens is a first-year PhD student in the Biology Department and Program on Ecology. Chris Huebner is a third-year PhD Candidate in the English Department. They are members of the Duke Graduate Students Union.

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