U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) just announced that international students with F-1 and M-1 visas whose courseloads will be fully online must leave the United States or face deportation. GSU strongly condemns this policy and demands that the University of Chicago uses its financial and legal resources to act decisively in opposition to this policy. We also maintain that reopening campus is not the solution: it is reprehensible to force students to choose between risking infection to attend courses and deportation, especially when livelihoods and travel are so precarious. The administration of the University of Chicago must do its part to protect graduate students and other members of our community from the harmful policies of the federal government, from the dangers of COVID-19, financial insecurity, and from rising xenophobia and racism in our country.
International students comprise 25% of the total student population at the University of Chicago. In Spring 2020, 918 undergraduate students and 2998 graduate and professional students were enrolled at the university; all are threatened by this and other xenophobic measures recently proclaimed by the Trump administration. The threat of deportation is a particularly grave problem given safety concerns stemming from the current COVID-19 pandemic. Travel to and from the United States is unreliable, expensive, restricted, or simply closed. International students, already under pressure from this country’s draconian immigration policies and mishandling of the pandemic, are now facing the very real possibility of having their education and lives further interrupted.
Even under the University of Chicago’s hybrid model for Fall 2020, international students on F-1 visas in coursework cannot take an entirely online course load and remain in the United States. Students do not have control over whether their courses will be in-person or online, and the university’s assurances that students with pre-existing conditions or other circumstances that require them to remain in online courses for their own safety can no longer apply to international students. Additionally, students currently abroad can only maintain their visa status if the university offers online-only instruction, which is currently not the case for the University of Chicago, forcing students to return to the United States despite the massive public health risks. If the COVID-19 situation worsens and forces the university to move online, students with visas will be forced to leave the country within 10 days. This would be unacceptable under normal conditions, but it is especially reprehensible during a worldwide pandemic. By leaving the “choice” between in-person versus online instruction to faculty and graduate instructors, the university is abdicating its responsibility to vulnerable students, instructors, and the university community as a whole. This places a burden upon departments to either force their faculty and instructors to risk their safety or to put students in a position to be deported – putting instructors in an impossible position.
Additionally, international students who are currently out of the country will not be able to re-enter the United States, forcing them into an especially difficult and unstable position where they must negotiate how to continue their research and education away from the university. This change comes on top of an already exacerbated situation for graduate students pursuing their degrees under the threat of probation and an already restricted timeline following the university’s recently unveiled funding overhaul program and the university’s refusal to address the unique hardships caused by COVID-19 for graduate students. We have already heard from several students that they have faced difficulties applying for and receiving their visas, an issue that will likely be further exacerbated by this measure. Additionally, it is still unclear how students no longer in coursework would be affected by this policy. Further, it is entirely unclear how this change will affect stipend payments, health insurance, and other forms of university-provided assistance. The university needs to ensure that all graduate students will continue to receive their health insurance, stipends, and other payments in full and on time, regardless of where they are located in the world. Understandably, this uncertainty is causing considerable distress among students and graduate workers in our community.
We recognize that the best advocates for graduate students and workers are graduate workers themselves, and that the university’s refusal to enter into collective bargaining with graduate students worsens our already precarious position in academia. Quoting from our graduate worker colleagues at Northwestern, the university’s refusal to communicate and bargain with graduate workers “remains a palpable barrier to ensuring international graduate workers have a say over their protection and livelihoods.”
We call on the University of Chicago to denounce these immigration restrictions in the strongest possible terms, and to take all measures necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of its international community.
Graduate Students United