Deporting students hurts America

Deporting students hurts America

If U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had made its decision to deport international students 20 years ago, I would have had to leave my home — a dormitory at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn. A native of Sweden, I had come to the United States on an F-1 visa to immerse myself in the small classes and long nights at the library that epitomizes the experience of attending a liberal arts college in the U.S. 

My experience in college was part of a global academic culture that was about far more than an individual opportunity. It was about American strategic and diplomatic exchange; about recognizing the benefits of international collaboration among academic, scientific and arts leaders who share a commitment to excellence. ICE’s July 6 decision jeopardizes all of that. 

My situation as a foreign college student was different than that of students who are reeling from this week’s announcement. If I had been deported, I would have returned to Sweden, a country that is not on President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJoe Arpaio loses bid for his old position as sheriff Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' Trump tees up executive orders on economy but won't sign yet MORE’s list of “shithole” countries. I would have been fine. Neither my livelihood nor my life would have been in danger.

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Today, the swift objections to the F-1 deportations have focused on the humanitarian implications, and rightly so. ICE is compromising the safety of tens of thousands of students from countries that are coping with regime instability, economic depression, or a lack of the technological infrastructure that “remote learning” requires. How many students is the country sending back to warzones? How many young people will make extremely risky decisions trying to remain in the country? 

Political polarization and current public conflicts over facemasks suggest that few are receptive to appeals to the welfare of others, particularly strangers. Let’s, therefore, assume for a moment that you aren’t motivated by empathy, that you believe that ICE’s decision is an appropriate expression of American self-interest. Let’s assume that you believe foreign students have been taking advantage of our nation’s top universities, filling seats that could have been given to Americans.

Ask yourself: What will be lost if citizens of other countries are excluded from American higher education? Not for them, but for us? What are we setting ourselves up for in the coming decades of a radically changing world? 

If the United States restricts access for international students and researchers — and the past few years have already made the climate inhospitable — here are a few things that will get worse: We will have fewer opportunities to collaborate in international research teams on global priorities such as climate change and public health. We will have weaker partnerships with international organizations including the World Health Organization, where partnerships develop over time and their value depends on trust. 

Foreign “post-docs” who do some of the most ground-breaking research in this country may be forced to leave, putting added pressure on already strained circumstances for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. And if European universities become a bigger draw than institutes of higher education in the United States, we will lose both our competitive advantage and invaluable opportunities to recruit the best minds in the world.

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According to the National Science Board, foreign-born noncitizens make up more than half of the doctorate recipients in engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, and economics. In many cases, these top-tier researchers stay in the United States after graduation and contribute significantly to STEM-related industries. 

To cover the cost of tuition and living expenses, over 60 percent of international students rely on personal savings and foreign government stipends. While in school, international students contribute nearly $37 billion to the U.S. economy and support nearly half a million jobs. A recent study of over 5,600 Ph.D. students in STEM shows that foreign-born students are significantly more likely to found or participate in start-ups than their American counterparts. Making access to higher education for these students difficult or impossible guarantees significant losses for the American economy.

In addition, the international alumni networks that provide resources for our own study abroad programs will atrophy as these depend on student experiences during their time in the United States. Without these networks, American students’ opportunities to expand their educational horizons are severely limited. Further still, as international research collaboratives effectively turn theory into practice and implementation, the visibility of American universities’ successes for researchers and students will decrease. From an international perspective, ICE’s decision reflects the U.S. failure to recognize that today’s research operates internationally and requires mobility across borders.

These will be the costs of shutting out thousands of intelligent and motivated people who want to stay here. And the bill will come, I worry, much sooner than expected. That is, the economic and geopolitical impact of the grave mistake that ICE is making will be noticeable in less than a year.

I maintained my F-1 immigrant status for nearly a decade until I completed my Ph.D. in 2008 when I eventually married and became a permanent resident. During that time, I lived in, benefited from, and contributed to the intensely diverse community that is the American academy. I have loved it, and I’m still a part of it, now as a faculty member of the University of Texas at Austin. 

Deporting international students at this time is indeed cruel. But my point isn’t sentimental. The stakes in this issue are not middle-class kids from Sweden or even economically disadvantaged students from areas of conflict. Rather, the ones with the most to lose by setting this course for the future is us — the American academy, economy, and public culture.

Johanna Hartelius, Ph.D. is the author of "The Rhetoric of Expertise" and "The Gifting Logos: Expertise in the Digital Commons." Hartelius is on the faculty at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.