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ICE Threatens to Deport International Students If Schools Move Classes Online

International students account for as much as a third of the undergraduate student body at many U.S. universities.

As President Trump pressures states to reopen schools in the fall despite an alarming surge in new coronavirus cases, ICE says international students studying at U.S. universities could face deportation if their schools switch to online-only courses. The U.S. issues more than a million student visas a year, and international students account for as much as a third of the undergraduate student body at many colleges and universities and often constitute the majority of graduate students. “I have yet to see a justification for this,” says immigration attorney Fiona McEntee, who notes that international students contribute about $41 billion to the U.S. economy per year. We also speak with Jian Ren, a Chinese international student pursuing a Ph.D. at Rutgers University.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the U.S. reported an alarming surge of 60,000 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, shattering the record of the day before, President Trump continued to pressure state governors to open schools in the fall. This comes as ICE — that’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement — announced Monday that thousands of international students enrolled in universities across the United States could face deportation or denied visas back into the U.S. if their schools switch to online-only courses in the fall due to the pandemic.

More than a million international students were issued visas to study in the United States last year. They account for as much as a third of the undergraduate student body at many colleges and universities, and are often the majority of graduate students.

This is Olufemi Olurin, an Eastern Kentucky University student from the Bahamas, reacting to the decision.

OLUFEMI OLURIN: I did come here legally. I’ve been legal. You know, I check in with the government. I pay my taxes. I do everything they tell me to do. If I move, I check in within 10 days. You know, I know all my — I know the law. … I did everything they told me to do, and it’s still like, “Oh, we’re going to take that mat from under you.” … When you plan your life in your twenties, when you start to get into that age where you’re trying to set up a 5-year plan and a 10-year plan, obviously deportation isn’t something you want to put in that plan. So, it definitely took me — took me by surprise.

AMY GOODMAN: ICE released its new guidance just hours after Harvard University announced that all of its classes will be online this fall. On Tuesday, Trump called Harvard’s plan “ridiculous.”

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I see where Harvard announced that they’re closing for the season or for the year. I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s an easy way out. And I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves, you want to know the truth. But I noticed that today. And probably others are doing that. That’s called the easy way out.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the Trump administration announced plans last month to cancel the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students who have ties to universities affiliated with China’s military. Chinese students are the largest single foreign student population in the United States.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. In Chicago, Fiona McEntee is an immigration attorney, and she’s a former international student herself, from Ireland, now a naturalized U.S. citizen. And in Union City, New Jersey, Jian Ren is with us, an international graduate student, originally from China, pursuing a Ph.D. in Latin American history at Rutgers University, where our co-host Juan González is a professor.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Fiona McEntee, let’s begin with you. Can you explain what ICE has just announced? There are something like 1.1 million international students in universities and graduate schools across the country. They could be deported or denied entry back into the U.S. if they went home, if their university, like Harvard, for example, does not offer in-person classes, ICE saying to them, “You can transfer, if you have to”?

FIONA McENTEE: Yeah, Amy, that’s exactly what happened. So, earlier on this week, we saw an announcement by ICE that essentially stated that if foreign students were attending universities that were going to be online only, or participating in online-only courses, then that they would not be able to maintain their student visa status, which leaves them with, you know, some pretty grim options, one of which is — well, deportation was actually mentioned in the ICE statement, as you mentioned.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Fiona McEntee, but this is obviously no fault of the students if a particular university doesn’t offer [in-person] courses. How is the administration justifying this?

FIONA McENTEE: You know, that’s a good question, and I have yet to see a justification for this. So, historically, there were limits on the amount of online courses international students could take. And that makes sense in nonpandemic times. However, when COVID hit, allowances were made, and rightly so, to that policy, and flexibility was made, allowing foreign students to remain here and maintain their student status and study online. And I think a lot of stakeholders in this were expecting those allowances to continue, given that we’re still in the middle of the pandemic. However, that was not the case. And I think it came as a shock to us all. And you’re right, it’s not the foreign students’ fault. And to be honest, they’re one of the most valuable assets that this country has. So it doesn’t make any sense to me, and I’ve yet to see a clear justification for this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to follow up on that and ask you about the reaction by anti-immigration groups, like NumbersUSA, the right-wing restrictionist group. They’ve welcomed this policy. So, it not only fits into President Trump’s efforts to pressure universities, it also bolsters his anti-immigrant base, as well, doesn’t it?

FIONA McENTEE: Yeah, it definitely does. But there’s really — I mean, you can look at immigration in a number of ways. You know, you can look at the cultural aspect of the diversity, but you could also look at it economically. And foreign students contribute about $41 billion per year to the U.S. economy. But just by being here, they created over 450,000 jobs. So, that’s by, you know, food services, healthcare.

I mean, I’ve been contacted by landlords who have been saying, “What am I going to do? Foreign students are my tenants, and now they’re going to be deported, or they’re going to have to leave.”

So, I mean, it doesn’t make sense from an economic point of view. Right now, with the situation, the economy is, like — needs a boost. And I just don’t understand why now we would decide to expel foreign students here, when they contribute so much to the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Fiona McEntee, I mean, just to understand, how does ICE enforce this? It means they have to cooperate — the universities and colleges across the country, who are now absolutely outraged by this very late, not to mention just what the content of the guidance is, they have to cooperate with ICE, right? Because they have to let them know if international students are only taking online courses — for example, places like Juan’s university, and our next guest. At Rutgers, they’re going to offer a mix of online and in-person. You’d have to find out if this particular international student is taking only online courses. So will there be more cooperation? Will ICE demand information about the students? How do they enforce this?

FIONA McENTEE: Yeah, I mean, there is a certification process that’s built into this. So, the universities are supposed to report to ICE about whether or not the programs are going to be administered fully online or not. And, you know, I think it’s pretty jarring that in the statement they did mention deportation.

And for foreign students, who — you heard the lady earlier — I mean, they’ve given up so much. They come here. They pay so much tuition. They contribute so much while they’re here. And they’re also — you know, all the statistics show how many startups they create, how many jobs. You know, they don’t have a negative impact on U.S. wages; you know, it’s quite the contrary. So, you know, it’s kind of — it’s very puzzling that you would force international students into in-person studies when there’s a global health crisis in this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Jian Ren, a grad student here at Rutgers University, ask you about your reaction once you — when you heard the news of this.

JIAN REN: It’s shocking, because the obscure language in this instruction impacts on me a lot. With the research nature of my degree as a Ph.D. student, I should remain in the United States for academic purposes. I’m going to do oral history interviews in New Jersey locally. And I have to teach undergraduate courses next semester. I find it impossible to do it in China, a country without free internet, for online courses, for delivering all my lectures at 3 a.m. in the morning. But the instruction by the ICE only defines a student’s right to remain in the United States by courses. So, if I don’t take online courses, I cannot fulfill other research obligations by my degree.

And I was also shocked by the lack of knowledge by whoever drafted this instruction, or they just don’t choose to understand the nature of academia in the United States, how a university operates, because different international students are taking different roles, different vital roles, in a university to keep it operating.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the tweet that — your tweet, Jian Ren, right after ICE made their announcement on Monday, shocking universities and colleges across the country, not to mention a million students. You wrote, “Three common misperceptions: 1. International students don’t pay taxes; 2. International students can apply for a green card after graduation; 3. International students have freedom of speech when they are in the United States.” Explain these three points. Start with taxes, Jian.

JIAN REN: So, as a Ph.D. student, I, and maybe all Ph.D. students from overseas countries to the United States, have to teach classes. And they are responsible for undergraduate education. And they are paid by the university, so they have to pay federal taxes in the United States. And our tax rate is often higher than average Americans, because we don’t have deductions in tax return. We have some, but they are not substantial deductions like Americans have. So, that’s the number one provision I provided, that we also pay taxes to the U.S.

And secondly, there’s no direct channel for us from a Ph.D. degree, undergraduate degree or other kind of degree to immigration. The F visa, the visa for international students, is not an immigrant visa. It’s a non-immigrant visa, or we are called temporary visitors. It’s our privilege to stay in the United States, but not a right. I fully understand this. And we are not going to, like, be American citizens in a few years. It’s simply impossible by law and by the current system.

And thirdly —



JUAN GONZÁLEZ: No, go ahead.

JIAN REN: And thirdly, the freedom of speech part is a complicated issue. For me, I’m here to participate in the program. I’m facing a risk, because in the next visa application — I have to renew visa in like three years — the U.S. government will ask me about my social network information and, like, scrutinize my opinions. It’s a requirement implemented like three years ago. So, that’s what I call — there’s no, like, equal definition of freedom of speech for us international students in the U.S. compared with Americans.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jian Ren, I wanted to ask you — most Americans are not aware of the important role that foreign students play in maintaining American universities. For instance, at New York University, 20,000 students are foreign students. In many public universities, it’s the foreign students who pay full tuition — most of them, many of them — who are able to maintain the finances of these public universities, as well. Can you talk about this role that foreign students play here, as well?

JIAN REN: Yes. In most state universities, public institutions, foreign students pay a higher tuition than American citizens in the U.S. And they actually boosted the economy around the campus, especially in college towns like New Brunswick, in New Jersey. Like, the car dealers, the landlords, the restaurants, the supermarkets rely on foreign students to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean if you were to go back to China? China’s reaction to this? And this is significant, because of the 1.1 million foreign students, it looks like more than a third of them are Chinese students. Now, President Trump almost attempted this two years ago. His senior adviser, the fierce anti-immigrant Stephen Miller, apparently tried to just get Chinese students banned. I guess President Trump has now come to understand that courts don’t like targeted bannings. Is this, do you think, a veiled way to go after Chinese students and attack China right now, Jian Ren? And how much does it cost to go home?

JIAN REN: We have to check the reality of U.S.-China tensions right now. So, with the pandemic and the authoritarian U.S.-China relations in the current moment, there is virtually no flights between China and the U.S., only two or four per week. And the one-way economy-class tickets cost Chinese students more than $10,000 U.S. So, if mass deportation begins, it’s nearly impossible for hundreds of thousands of Chinese students to go home, with both Chinese government and the U.S. government policy to manipulate flight tickets at this moment. And if the U.S. government is going to implement mass deportations by itself, it would be a heavy tax burden for average U.S. taxpayers.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Fiona McEntee and read you a tweet that came out soon after ICE announced they might deport or bar more than a million students from higher education in this country, foreign students. It said, “Petition for universities to create a one-credit course for international students called ‘F— ICE 101′ that meets in person once per semester with excused absences. ‘F— ICE 102′ to be taught next spring.” Now, they gave the full word. But, Fiona McEntee, what your recommendation is to the more than million international students in this country right now? You were once one of them.

FIONA McENTEE: Yeah, I was once one of them. And I think this is why — I mean, and I’ve worked with thousands of international students over the course of my career as an immigration lawyer, and so I see how much they bring to this country.

And so, you know, I think that’s an interesting idea for the in-person classes. But really, if they want to stay in their universities that they’re in, and the university or college is going to an online-only model, they’re not going to be able to do that, so they do need some type of in-person class. And, you know, the foreign students are in class with American students. You know, they’re next — it’s not like there’s all just foreign students in a class together. So they’re mixed in. So, we’re now going to require American students, forcing them to come into class to avoid risking deportation of their classmates and their friends. And, you know, I’ve yet to see any type of justification for this. And another option would be if they — to scramble to try to change schools, when fall semester is starting in a couple of weeks.

And so, I think the — I’ve definitely seen the universities push back. I have seen an open letter that has been published online, and I was looking at it this morning. There’s hundreds of signatures from — professors, from, you know, universities, colleges all over the U.S. have signed on to this letter to oppose this policy that just doesn’t make any sense. And so, I think you might see some more pushback from the universities and maybe some modifications with adding some in-person classes. But, you know, why should they have to do that?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it looks like President Trump wants to make it look like business is carrying on as usual in this country. He particularly attacked Harvard yesterday, that announced no in-person classes, calling their decision “ridiculous.” And then ICE released its decision right after that announcement.

Fiona McEntee, I want to thank you for being with us, immigration attorney, former international student from Ireland, and Jian Ren, international Ph.D. student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where Juan teaches, as well.

Next up, we go to Texas to speak with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dr. Sheri Fink, who’s been reporting inside Houston’s hard-hit hospitals. Ten thousand new coronavirus cases in one day. That’s the number for Texas alone. More than 60,000 cases in the United States. Stay with us.

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