ICE gives foreign students a choice: Ignore the corona or we’ll deport you

UNLV empty campus
An empty UNLV campus in April. (Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Photo Services)

One spook-think theory goes like this: Sure, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t like international students any more than ICE likes international anybody. But by deciding those students cannot remain in the U.S. if they are taking a full course load online, what ICE is really trying to do, on behalf of the president’s reelection campaign, is pressure universities to quit acting like there’s a pandemic and hold classes as if nothing unusual is going on.

The problem with conspiracy theories involving Trump administration malevolence is they may assume a competence the administration doesn’t have.

Still, Monday’s rule from ICE does sound like something White House Chief of Xenophobic Affairs Stephen Miller and reelection campaign Übermensch Jared Kushner might cook up, maybe with a little help from some of the more industrious contributors to right-wing extremist social media platforms.

To recap, ICE Monday announced international students “attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.” 

As universities move to take more classes online, for obvious reasons, students who take all their courses online “must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” according to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program “modifications” announced by ICE.

Asked for comment Monday, the Nevada System of Higher Education noted Nevada schools “anticipate” offering both in-person and online classes in the fall semester. NSHE “recognizes the valuable cultural and intellectual contributions” of the approximately 2,000 international students in the system’s eight schools, and is “currently reviewing the new rule changes to determine how they may impact” those students.

“Anticipate” is exactly the right word for NSHE to use. Nevada schools and others across the country are still wrestling with uncertainty about the fall semester — it’s 2020 and life comes at you fast. As colleges in Nevada and elsewhere struggle to figure out how to reopen, they are trying to give students choices, so students can make decisions they feel are best for their safety.

ICE is also giving students a choice: Take your chances with the rona, or get deported.

School doesn’t start for several weeks. A month ago everyone was celebrating the reopening of casinos. Now corona cases are spiking, hospitalization is rising, and everyone is wondering if we’ll have to shut things down again.

In other words, no one, least of all ICE, knows what the prospects are going to look like for colleges by the time school is supposed to start.

The prudent thing, the rational thing — the humane thing — would be to acknowledge the uncertainty, and be prepared to respond to it with flexibility and understanding. The rational thing to do would be to allow foreign students here on visas to stay and take courses online, all their courses, if that’s what they feel is best for them — or if that’s what their school ends up offering, either at the start of the semester or in response to a corona rage once the semester is underway.

The irrational, not humane thing would be to force students to sit in an enclosed classroom with other people for a solid hour and fifteen minutes several times a week; or alternatively, force them to sit in an enclosed aircraft or two (or three) for several hours to go back to a country that may not want to let them in anyway, as those students would be traveling from what pound for pound is by far the most corona’d up nation on the planet. 

More than 1,200 international students accounted for about 4 percent of UNLV’s enrollment in 2018. The university (the nation’s most diverse, remember), is rather popular with foreign students. One analysis of student visa data found of nearly 1,300 colleges and universities, UNLV ranked 182nd in popularity among international students.

The largest international group at UNLV in 2018, nearly 40 percent of the international student total, were students from China, a nation America either loves or hates depending on what hare-brained interpretation of events Donald Trump is pitching on any given day.

About 19 percent of UNLV’s international students were from South Korea, and you must admit that upon considering how the covid has been fought in that country and how it’s been, well, not fought in this one, a lot of those South Korean students are probably good and ready to high-tail it out of Nevada if they haven’t already.

The rest of the international students at UNLV were from more than 40 nations the world over.

I taught freshman History courses at UNLV for a few years. The university packs (or used to anyway) a lot of students into those courses — 55 was the enrollment cap, if memory serves, and I saw students from all over. I never pried because it’s their business not mine and I sure as hell never asked about their visa status. But often for one reason or another they’d tell me where they were from — Jamaica, Hungary, Columbia.  Twins from China. English was usually a second language. They had to try harder. And they did.

And I think every person in the room, especially the instructor, was fascinated by the observations of a student from Vietnam when we were discussing, as he called it, the American war.

Making it harder or impossible for those students to remain in the U.S. is a loss for Nevada. 

In this time of budget cuts, it’s also worth remembering that international students typically pay full out-of-state tuition, which costs more than in-state tuition.

Inasmuch as plans are things people can make these days, international students in Nevada have been trying to make them — including living and income arrangements. That planning is hard enough for every student right now, no matter where they’re from.

The last thing any government agency, even and especially one as disreputable, discredited and malevolent as ICE, should be doing right now is deliberately but needlessly messing with people’s lives.

And the first thing every government agency should be doing right now is taking the coronavirus seriously. Yes, that’s an awful lot to ask of ICE or any federal agency when the president’s reelection sales pitch is built on a) racist vilification and b) ignoring the coronavirus and hoping voters do too.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.