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Trump administration turns international students into political pawns with ICE ruling | COMMENTARY

Roham Razaghi is a fourth year PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. He is from Iran and concerned about the future of international students here in the U.S.
Roham Razaghi is a fourth year PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. He is from Iran and concerned about the future of international students here in the U.S. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement intends to bar international college students from entering the country — or staying in it, if already here — if their scheduled fall course load is entirely online, forcing more than 1 million students to choose between their health and their education, according to a rule proposed last week.

It was a double whammy from the Trump administration: both xenophobic in its false suggestion that the greatest coronavirus threat is coming from outside our borders, and dismissive of COVID-19 dangers in seeking to compel colleges and universities with large international student populations to reopen their campuses for financial reasons, even as virus cases hit record levels and deaths rise in nearly every corner of the country.

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Johns Hopkins University, which has nearly 5,000 international students, filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday to block the move, saying it “completely upended” the university’s academic planning. “The administration’s decision is gratuitous, cruel, and inimical to what this country is about,” JHU President Ronald J. Daniels said in a statement, calling the directive both “illegal and unconstitutional” and contrary to “the educational freedoms and humanitarian values that animate higher education” in America. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier filed similar lawsuits, and the University System of Maryland followed Monday, joining what is now a multi-state effort. Chancellor Jay A. Perman said the ICE proposal is “capricious and callous,” undermines campus social distancing efforts and punishes international students without cause.

We expect the courts to swiftly block implementation of the rule and urge others to join the opposition in the hopes it will pressure ICE to back off on its deportation threats, which appear to be grounded more in politics than public health. During the spring and summer semesters, ICE allowed international students to take more online classes than normally allowed under federal rule, pulling the exemption only now, as President Donald Trump makes a push for on-campus education at all levels, from pre-K to graduate school.

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But the pandemic rages on, with the situation worsening in many areas throughout America. Last week, five states recorded record deaths related to COVID-19, and over the weekend, Florida set a record for cases in a single day with 15,299.

“It is really serious, the country is not in a good place in respect to COVID right now,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an adviser to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, told “Fox News Sunday,” saying that the U.S. has lost sight of the basics and lost its urgency in the battle against coronavirus.

But what are we to expect when President Trump is falsely claiming that “The Mortality Rate for the China Virus in the U.S. is just about the LOWEST IN THE WORLD” and aggressively pushing to reopen the country? The messages to the public are, to say the least, mixed.

The decision from ICE comes as many universities are still weighing their options for the fall. Roughly 8% of American colleges and universities say they are planning for fully online instruction in the fall, including the entire California State University System and Harvard. They now must consider whether they will lose considerable portions of their student population to this rule. Higher education institutions, too, have faced significant budget cuts because of coronavirus and possible enrollment drops in the fall. International students contribute more than $125 million annually in tuition, housing, and fees to the University System of Maryland, Chancellor Perman said, and nearly $800 million to the state’s economy. Such students might be inclined to transfer to universities in their home countries due to the new restrictions or to other schools, though at this point, that may be impossible. Transfer deadlines for most universities have long passed.

Faculty members have gotten creative in trying to fight back, suggesting the creation of independent study courses that are in-person, but still socially distant. One Twitter thread among university professors — including someone from the University of Maryland, College Park — promised to host in-person courses where international students could stand 6-feet from instructors while participating. More than 12% of UMD’s student population is made up of international students. (Perhaps now would be a good time for the school to reconsider a controversial contract it maintains with ICE to provide the agency “cultural competency and counterterrorism” training).

We appreciate their ingenuity, but would prefer the proposed rule be removed altogether, rather than bent. International students enrich the campus experience for all by promoting diversity of thought, language and culture and by challenging others to think more globally. It’s time they were recognized for their contributions, and their place in this country protected, rather than abused as a political pawn.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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