Column: We must advocate for international and undocumented students 

Susan J. Demas

On July 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced changes to international student regulations, mandating that international students must leave the United States if they are registered solely in online courses during the fall semester. 

This was a drastic change from the past two semesters in which, due to the increasing rates of coronavirus in America, international students were allowed to continue their education online alongside their U.S. classmates. What followed was a furious rush by staff and faculty, who frantically responded to inboxes crammed with emails that amounted to, “Can you help me register for the right classes so that I don’t get deported and don’t get infected?” 

And then, after a lawsuit by MIT and Harvard to block the new directive, ICE rescinded the regulation change. This policy whiplash made the emotional and logistical chaos seem all for naught, and we have since returned to a perpetual state of impending dread as we await the next change to immigration law. 

As faculty and staff who have been at the University of Michigan for 10 years, we have observed this rapid change in policy before. International students –– along with undocumented students –– are going to need your support now more than ever before. 

Nessel sues ICE for threats to deport international students if classes are online

We are privileged to have spent the last decade of our lives working with and for international and undocumented students, both in various roles on campus and in our home community of Washtenaw County. We celebrated as student advocates collaborated with the university until our websites welcomed undocumented students, our multicultural centers included them, our centers develop research and research teams around the policies that shape their lives, and our administrators granted them tuition equality

And we have witnessed undocumented students and their friends organize to support their communities during a pandemic. But we have also seen why so many of our friends, colleagues and students were forced to advocate for themselves in the first place. One example is just last year, the university introduced a costly and unexpected semester-based international student fee

Our 10 years here have brought us closer to so very many in our county who have been deported, introduced us to a fake university in metro Detroit that Immigration and Customes Enforcement (ICE) opened specifically with the intention of catching and deporting students, and brought us to Detroit Metro Airport as the President Trump administration banned entry to many from Muslim-majority countries. 

Many of these policy changes, especially during the Trump administration, have significantly shifted our worlds only to be rescinded, altered or pared down within the few months after their release. We can say with confidence that the constant changes to international student and immigration policy are merely another manifestation of an administration bent on the removal of anyone born outside of the United States. And while we should celebrate the rescinding of the current policy as a victory, we must recognize that sowing fear and chaos is a fundamental component of immigration enforcement strategy. 

To those outside of higher education, this policy – which dictates the format of one’s classes – may not appear to have the far-reaching consequences of past changes to immigration policy. But like all immigration policies, no matter how slight they appear, violation ultimately results in the uprooting and removal from one’s life in the United States. 

Trump admin. rescinds policy to deport international students

Those of us in the university environment have observed the lives of our students devolve into uncertainty as they were forced to make fundamentally life-altering decisions about where they would spend the next year, how much exposure to infection they were willing to risk, and how much they were willing to sacrifice to receive a U.S. education. 

Students on F-1 and M-1 visas –– those who were directly affected by the now-rescinded policy change –– are allowed to stay in the United States for the duration of their academic programs. This means that while some students may live here for a year, many stay for nearly a decade as they pursue Ph.D. studies or postdoctoral research. 

They may have families, homes, cars, children, pets and their favorite intramural sports team. Many have joined churches, frequent gyms and have their favorite Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti restaurants to meet their friends. These international students are our colleagues, our neighbors and vital members of our community. 

We ask that our fellow faculty and staff support our international and undocumented students however possible, and use this moment as insight into what all our students born outside of the America experience under the immigration enforcement laws of the current administration. 

And our support cannot stop at curricular adjustments alone. The move to deport international students is merely one strategy ICE has used to remove our students and neighbors from our universities and our country.  We ask that your support for international and undocumented students not stop at the walls of the university, but extend beyond to address the root cause of the problem. 

We ask that you think deeply about these students the next time you step into your (physical or virtual) classrooms, as well as the next time you step into the voting booth. Immigration policy is education policy. Supporting international students means taking a stand against ICE.