UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

International Students Fight for Access to Education

By Tina Maglakelidze, UNA-NCA Research Assistant

In a news release on July 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that international students pursuing degrees in the United States will risk deportation if their universities provide courses exclusively online. A week later, constituting a rare U-turn in its immigration policy, the Trump administration rescinded the directive that would have potentially jeopardized the visas of 1.2 million international students studying in the U.S.

This policy reversal was, in large part, precipitated by widespread condemnation from civil society, advocacy efforts led by student petitioners, lawsuits launched by almost twenty state attorneys general as well as by a coalition of over fifty universities — later supported by the weight of over a dozen tech giants including Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Harvard and M.I.T moved to sue the administration in federal court two days after the ICE directive was announced and, by July 14, more than fifty colleges and universities — including American University and George Washington University — signed onto the amicus brief in support of their international students.

This is a significant victory over an “arbitrary and capricious” policy that threatened chaos for international students against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, university officials noted that, if need be, they are prepared to go back to court for their international students. Civil society and digital activists must also be prepared to go back to bat for international students and others who are vulnerable to the administration’s documented penchant for restrictive immigration policies.

Given the pandemic, deporting international students from the U.S. substantially risks the virus spreading to countries that have managed to recover from their first wave. The ICE directive not only compounded risks for international students during a public health crisis, but it also underscored the failure of the United States to develop sustainable solutions to global problems in conjunction with other nations. This proposed immigration policy exposed the U.S. as out of step with the UN’s Education 2030 Agenda.

The world’s student population is more internationally mobile than ever — more than five million students are studying outside of their home countries, a million of whom are studying in the United States. UNESCO, the United Nations’ specialized agency for education, has traditionally concentrated on primary and secondary schooling. In 2016, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals framework, the UN distinguished one of its objectives for 2030 as “equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.” Just last year, UNESCO adopted its Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications of Higher Education as the first legally binding UN treaty on higher education designed to facilitate academic mobility between regions.

On 10 July, Norway became the first country to ratify the UNESCO Global Convention on Higher Education. In light of the pandemic, which has resulted in university closures and has upended students’ lives worldwide, strengthened international cooperation in higher education is imperative. Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education explains that, “the Convention not only serves to support the mobility of students, learners and research, but also to recognize study courses and qualifications earned via new forms of blended, remote and open learning, including cross-border.”

The eight days between ICE’s press release and the announcement that the administration had rescinded its policy sent international students in the U.S. into a state of insecurity, both emotionally and in terms of logistics. Students who took out loans from their home countries or the U.S. scrambled to see if they could secure refunds. Others contemplated how to get out of their apartment leases for the upcoming semester and considered the risks of airport travel during a pandemic.

Before the policy was rescinded, I spoke to several international students enrolled in universities around DC. Across the board, the students I spoke to mentioned their feelings of dread over an overall lack of clarity, uneasiness and heightened anxiety, and, for some, regret about choosing the United States to pursue their higher education.

Undergraduate student at American University Xingxing H. explained that after the ICE restriction was released, her major concerns, while compounded by the possibility of getting coronavirus during her long flight home, stemmed from the “unkindness delivered” by the administration. “I started to doubt if the U.S. cares about and welcomes international students and if it is right for me to pay so much money to study here.”

Another student* from American University pursuing her master’s degree stated, “we [international students] only want to finish our studies in peace and be treated as some of our countries of origin would treat American students in this situation.” International Student Policy Chair within Georgetown University’s Student Association Luka P. explained that while she “would not trade the education I receive at Georgetown for anything else,” she would, “rather choose another country to receive it in.”

Access to education is an issue near and dear to the core values and advocacy work of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA). Our flagship program Global Classrooms DC (GCDC) promotes international affairs education with high school and middle school students and teachers through in-class lessons, volunteer programs, and conferences. We collaborate with international students regularly to advance our advocacy efforts. Between visits to Capitol Hill and meetings with members of Congress, UNA-NCA is committed to raising public support for constructive US leadership within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Framework, including SDG 4 which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable education for all.

Building educational systems that are inclusive, equitable, and relevant to all learners requires global collaboration between governments, the private sector, and civil society. The current pandemic undoubtedly poses challenges to education worldwide. Nevertheless, these challenges would be best addressed in conjunction with other countries and with sustainable solutions developed in collaboration with civil society.

Pursuing his master’s at George Washington University, international student Marcelo G. explained, “no matter the administration’s shortcomings, it’s nice to see most of academia and civil society rally behind us. Most people understand the value of international students in this country, and that’s what’s important.” The U.S. administration’s reversal in policy constituted a victory against a concerning trend of tightening immigration restrictions. The solidarity forged through the advocacy efforts of student activists and legal actions of universities sets an important precedent for civil society’s fight to support immigrants in this country.

*student requested their name to be withheld from this publication.

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UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to shayna@unanca.org.

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