International Students Feel Like Political Pawns

College students feel a mix of relief and weariness after the Trump reverses ICE directive.

Two years ago, Khojiakbar Gayratbekov left his home country of Uzbekistan to pursue a master’s degree in Migration Studies at the University of San Francisco. Gayratbekov had found his undergraduate experience in Uzbekistan to be stifled by bureaucracy and restrictions that limited his research.

“That’s why I came to the United States, thinking that I would have a lot of freedom to do research here,” Gayratbekov says.

Now, like hundreds of thousands of international students at American universities, Gayratbekov is breathing a sigh of relief after a week steeped in uncertainty. On Tuesday, the Trump administration walked back its rule that international students attending online-only classes in the fall would not be permitted to remain in the United States.

When he learned the news, Gayratbekov started calling all of his friends. One of them, a woman also from Uzbekistan who Gayratbekov said had no idea what she was going to do, almost started crying on the phone.

“It was a really, really joyful and also unexpected moment for us because we never expected that this would happen,” Gayratbekov says.

The reversal, which came just over a week after Immigrations and Customs Enforcement first announced the new restrictions, arrived as abruptly as the original order. The policy had triggered immediate outcry and a number of lawsuits, including a suit led by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which dozens of schools signed onto, among them Stanford, the University of San Francisco, and California State University. In a Boston federal court hearing over the Harvard/MIT lawsuit Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs confirmed that the administration had agreed to rescind the rule. 

Instead, the administration will extend its temporary guidelines from the spring, which will allow international students to remain in the country even if their coursework is entirely online. 

In an email statement, San Francisco State University President Lynn Mahoney wrote that the decision was “a tremendous relief.”

“We are deeply grateful to everyone – on campus and off – who worked diligently and rapidly over the last week in support of our international students,” Mahoney said. “If anything good came of this unfortunate experience, it was the encouraging and inspiring reactions of our community in support of international students who enrich our campus in so many ways.”

The rule was widely interpreted as an attempt by the Trump administration to pressure universities into reopening despite the ongoing risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic. As cases spike in California and around the country, the prospect of welcoming students back to campus is a daunting one, and many major Bay Area universities have been planning on limiting or eliminating in-person instruction for safety reasons. San Francisco State University and San Jose State University both announced plans to go almost or entirely online in the fall, and UC Berkeley and Stanford both intend to allow a limited number of students to return to campus in the fall for a hybrid instruction model.

The rule would also have had a disproportionate effect on California universities, which host more international students than any other state.There were 161,693 international students enrolled in California colleges and universities in 2019. And Bay Area schools are some of the state’s major magnets for international students: in the 2019-2020 academic year, there were over 6,800 international students enrolled at UC Berkeley, and over 4,515 at Stanford.

Soon after news of the original order broke, Bay Area universities joined schools across the country in condemning the Trump administration’s directive and releasing statements in support of their international students. Some took action right away: Gayratbekov said that he quickly received assurance from USF that the university would do its best to offer in-person classes to accommodate international students. On July 10, USF and the California State University joined Stanford and dozens of other universities from around the country in signing onto a brief in support of the Harvard- and MIT-led lawsuit against ICE. The day before, California Attorney General Xavier Berccera filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration on behalf of CSU and the California Community College system.

The University of California filed its own lawsuit against the federal government. And on July 13, Stanford joined a coalition of western colleges, including USF and Santa Clara University, in a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security seeking to block implementation of the new rule. In a July 8 email addressed to the Stanford community, Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne wrote that he was “strongly opposed” to the ICE order.

“Asking international students to transfer or leave the country — and, not to mention, to navigate the travel restrictions in place in many countries around the world, and to risk the possibility that they may not be able to return — is misguided and harmful,” Tessier-Lavigne wrote.

For Gayratbekov, who is one of almost 1,500 international students at USF, the news was shocking, and made him feel “unwelcome.” It also introduced a frightening new uncertainty during an already tumultuous time.

“I thought about a lot of things, like, What happens to my pets? What happens to my apartment?” Gayratbekov says. “And also, what happens to my research that is really important to my degree, and also involves interviewing people here in the United States? So it was really stressing. It added a lot of stress during this global pandemic.”

Santiago Hernández, a Stanford undergraduate from Mexico City studying computer science, was living in Los Angeles with a couple of other international students when he learned the news. The household was rocked with confusion — and with the feeling they were being treated like political pawns.

“I thought it was ridiculous, definitely that was my first reaction,” Hernández says. “I was a bit defensive about the idea, it made no sense to me. And, of course, the fear starts to kick in almost immediately.”

The announcement came with no warning, and in its wake, international students scrambled to figure out their options. They described widespread confusion regarding what the new rules meant for them, and what they would have to do to remain in the country. For many, leaving the United States would have made attending online classes challenging or impossible — especially for those without reliable internet and computer access back home. The order would have forced some students into unsafe situations, and left others homeless. And, at a time when few international flights are available and many countries are enforcing strict travel restrictions to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, some students might have been rendered stateless.

“I was really worried about how I [could] go back to my home country, because there’s no flights to my home country right now, all the flights were canceled and borders are closed right now,” Gayratbekov says. “And I thought like, what will happen? Like, if I cannot go back to my home country, do I get deported or lose my status?”

Because the rule has been rescinded, international students taking online coursework will be allowed to remain in the country. The decision to quickly back off is unusual, and the Trump administration has not offered an explanation for its reversal. But the door is still open for the administration to return with a weaker version of the policy — most likely one that bars newly enrolled international students taking entirely online classes from entering the US.

ICE has already blocked some international students from entering the country because their schools were planning on teaching remotely in the fall, according to several court filings by universities.

For some international students, returning to campus in the United States may be the more dangerous option. José Sabau, a Stanford undergraduate from Cozumel, Mexico studying political science, says he still plans on spending the fall with his family in Mexico.

“The fact that the US really has, I think it’s over 2 million confirmed COVID cases total is very concerning,” Sabau says (the actual number of confirmed cases in the US is about 3.43 million). “And just the risk of taking an international flight from Cancun, which is my nearest airport, to SFO or Oakland, I mean, it’s a bit high. Also being hundreds of miles away from home in a foreign country — if I get COVID, it would be a very hard situation for my family.”

In an email to SF Weekly, Stanford professor and Faculty Senate member David Palumbo-Liu wrote that he views the announcement as “clearly a political move on the part of the Trump administration, a part of a general attack on education in its broadest sense. Palumbo-Liu pointed to a July 10 tweet from Trump threatening the funding and tax-exempt status of universities which the President deemed sites of “Radical Left Indoctrination.”

Gayratbekov said that among his international friends, the consensus opinion is also that the policy, and its reversal, were entirely political moves.

“It’s really unfair to be the victims of such rules, just because politicians play their dirty games and we just become victims of such games,” Gayratbekov says. “However, I really saw and realized the power of activism and the power of resistance in this very moment, because that’s how justice won. That’s how we won. I mean, we won by resisting, we won by being active, speaking up about this.”

Hernández speculated that the rule was an attempt by the Trump administration to force colleges to reopen that “backfired.”

“I think in general it’s a shame that politics have to get in the way of us being here,” Hernández says. “But on the other hand, … even though we didn’t feel as welcomed by the government … we definitely felt the support of our friends, the education community, and many other communities as well.”

After a tumultuous week, international students and their universities have scored a major win. Still, uncertainty looms for students like Gayratbekov.

“As international students, we have always been uncertain about our futures, because there’s always been different kinds of rules, different kinds of uncertainties,” Gayratbekov says. “And this was just part of it.”

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