Those Who Study Have Rights

Prior to COVID-19, those international students relying on nonimmigrant F-1 visas (which make up the overwhelming majority) were not allowed to reside in the US if their studies were primarily online. After the coronavirus outbreak, an exemption was issued allowing most international students to temporarily remain in the country in spite of increasingly online course loads. On July 6th, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that many of these exemptions will be rescinded. In short: international students who are enrolled in schools that will be conducting classes online will no longer be allowed to live in the US and face imminent deportation if they don’t leave the country.

There are two important circumstances which explain this move:

These new restrictions are just one plank in a larger program of new anti-immigration restrictions being carried out by the Trump administration. These new policies and the recent demagogic racist tirade from Republican Senator Tom Cotton (in which he called for Chinese students in the US to lose their visas) are troubling examples of the chauvinistic policies and rhetoric that are emerging as the COVID-19 crisis deepens. This new wave of anti-immigrant policies must be understood in the context of the economic fallout from the pandemic. Despite the fact that 5 million jobs were added to the economy in June, unemployment remains high. In an attempt to place blame, the bourgeoisie is turning to a familiar scapegoat: immigrants.

Trump has vehemently spoken in favor of colleges and universities fully reopening in spite of the current pandemic. These anti-immigrant measures also serve to pressure colleges to reopen by punishing them for closing and targeting international students.

The question arises: what will schools do to protect their students?

International students represent an important financial pressure point for universities, as they are generally barred from access to grants or financial aid and therefore often pay full price for their education. These new online course limits for international students could cost universities up to forty-one billion dollars in lost tuition. This will undoubtedly add to the already staggering financial crisis universities are experiencing as a result of COVID-19. In the case of private schools, it could lead to significant losses and downsizing. For public schools, which have already suffered from a steady loss of public funding over the last several decades, this presents yet another existential threat.

Of course, financial impact isn’t the basis of the official responses we are hearing from universities. CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, similar to many college executives, has “decried” the measure, assuring students that CUNY will “explore and pursue measures that would help these students remain in the country” and “pursue all viable legal remedies to humanize these rules.” There are over nine thousand international students at CUNY and over one million in the US, most of whom face deportation under the new rules.

It seems that we must educate Chancellor Rodríguez and his colleagues: it is impossible to “humanize” policies that are intentionally designed to terrorize students, just as it is impossible to reform institutions like ICE into our friends. To the NGOs and professional activists we say: no amount of petitions or op-eds will get in the way of ICE, who have repetitively demonstrated their proclivity for abuse against immigrants. With no meaningful political opposition to these measures, international students are subject to the whims of a racist state and its threat of violence. They certainly cannot rely on the meager extent to which bourgeois institutions might deign to stand up for them.

When Trump issued executive orders targeting undocumented students in 2017, many universities coordinated to form a makeshift network of “sanctuary campuses,” instituting legal policies that limited their cooperation with ICE – but only up to a point. With a warrant, ICE officers were still able to make arrests and deport students. The law forms a boundary which universities cannot cross; opposition to state repression can only go as far as the state allows. Considering the US Supreme Court’s recent 7-2 decision to expand Trump’s deportation powers and enable more “expedited removals,” meaningful institutional resistance to ICE seems unlikely. Time and again, we are shown that there is no leading political force capable of representing oppressed people in the US, including students.

This situation amounts to a significant breach of the democratic rights of students. For students who may now be forced to leave the country, a range of challenges arises. Many have been living in the US for years and will face complications returning to their home countries. The expense of breaking a lease and purchasing a plane ticket could be severe. After leaving the country, students will be confronted with remote learning – a poor substitute for in-person instruction – which for many students will take place at odd hours due to time zone gaps. These time zone gaps could make it difficult to find employment and create all kinds of other complications for students.

The threats to expel international students means that ALL students must choose a side in this struggle. Students must understand these threats of expulsion not just as an immigrant issue or a student issue, but as part of the larger struggle against the imperialist bourgeoisie’s assault on the working class. Those who work and study have rights – this is the law of the people against the law of the bourgeoisie. The law of the bourgeoisie for the immigrant sections of the people is: you have no rights. The law of the bourgeoisie for the native-born sections of the people is: you have the right to shut up and be exploited. The class struggle demands that we recognize the multi-national character of the working class of the United States. Immigration is ultimately a progressive thing: the amalgamation of nationalities, resulting in a multi-national working class, is the objective and subjective condition of proletarian internationalism. Further, the immigration of students and workers from countries dominated by US imperialism creates the means for both peoples in dominated countries and the people of the US to unite in struggle against imperialism. These struggles are connected: their results depend on one another.

The problem of student deportations is fundamentally a political one, and political problems require political solutions. As the multi-national working class of the United States gathers its force and unity, all students and youth must rally to its internationalist politics. We must take up the demand for absolute equality of rights between the native-born and immigrant sections of the working people and struggle tirelessly to realize this equality.

The recent rebellions against racist police violence are a sign that the collectivist aspirations of the youth are gathering in strength and popularity. Even in times of social peace, the bourgeoisie is constantly preoccupied with breaking this will for change and for unity. They employ many tactics of division to separate immigrant from native-born students; they receive different housing, tuition, employment, etc. It is time for revolutionary students to unite and take up the task of building a militant student movement. This movement can wage truly political struggles only by taking up the perspective of the whole. We have the power to stand up for ourselves and to protect one another. Organization is our weapon, and we must not shy away from using it.

Against the racist threats of ICE we elaborate the following demands from our program:

  • Complete equality of rights, including political rights, for immigrants.
  • Immediate end to the expulsions of immigrants and international students, and the return of all deported or expelled immigrants and students.
  • Equal access to education for immigrant, international, and native-born students.
  • Unconditional right to labor; no visa work restrictions; no layoffs; permanent hiring by the university of all native-born, immigrant, and international students who seek work.

Our reply to this violence must be to make the recent rebellions of the people a united struggle against capitalism, a revolutionary political struggle. For this the international working class of the United States must be organized in its own party, and this party must be the leading core of the whole people. The MDSO is not the party, but we support those striving for its construction. Such a party does not yet exist and cannot simply be proclaimed – it must be forged in struggle.

Footnote – regarding the specifics of the statement issued by ICE: International students at colleges and universities whose classes will be fully online in the Fall 2020 semester are not allowed to remain in the US. If a school is operating “normally,” international students are permitted to take only one online class. If a school opts for a “hybrid” system consisting of both online and in-person classes, that school must submit a form for each international student, assuring ICE that each student is taking the minimum required number of online classes. There is even less leeway for international students enrolled in English language training or vocational degree programs, who are not allowed to take any classes online. If any of the above students remain in the US, they will be subject to punishment “including, but not limited to” forcible deportation by ICE.

Update: In a court hearing on July 14th the Federal Government agreed that it would not go forward with the July 6 ICE guidances. Although the threat of deportation for thousands of students has been narrowly avoided for now, we must prepare for future struggles against the anti-immigrant program of the bourgeoisie which are sure to come. The fact that the guidances were issued at all is indicative of the current political atmosphere and the precariousness of the international working people of the US.