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Local Opinion: Protecting international students protects our universities
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Local Opinion: Protecting international students protects our universities

OPINION: New Trump admin rule threatens international students, and universities, futures

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The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

We are fresh off an Independence Day surrounded by civil unrest, a devastating pandemic, and a recession. I spent time contemplating what I hope for, which is a country that will live up to its lofty promises, and what I love, which is a country that gives us the freedom and opportunities to hold it to those promises. Our higher education system is critical to protecting these freedoms and promoting these opportunities.

But our colleges and universities are now threatened by a foolish ICE policy, announced Monday, July 6, that could effectively ban international students. This policy will be catastrophic to American higher education and to our communities. It is difficult to find a single constituency who will benefit. The policy will specifically force international students who take online courses or who attend colleges or universities that go fully online this fall to leave the country.

I speak from much experience in the education system. I am an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, where I study education. Before that I earned a Ph.D in sociology at the University of Wisconsin, and before that I earned an M.A. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Mississippi while teaching high school.

I speak for myself, not any of these institutions. But I believe this policy will be devastating for many reasons.

First, the right mix of online courses will allow teaching and learning to continue while keeping the spread of COVID-19 manageable, which will save lives. This potential international student ban will force students to choose whether to leave the country or risk contracting and spreading COVID-19 in in-person courses. It will also pressure colleges and universities to pursue face-to-face instruction when it may not be safe, so that they do not lose international students.

Second, on that note, colleges and universities are facing severe budgetary challenges under the pandemic, and international students are a boon. Their tuition is much higher than in-state or even out-of-state students, so they effectively subsidize the education of U.S. citizens.

Given the steady stream of policies restricting immigration, it is unclear when or if international students could return, even after in-person instruction is safe. Why pay for online courses when they may never be allowed back to finish their degrees? A drop in international student enrollments may financially cripple colleges and universities in ways that will cost people jobs and erode the quality of a college education for everyone.

Third, our colleges and universities cannot maintain excellent teaching and research without our international graduate students.

We attract the brightest from across the world, and they help teach our undergraduates while supporting faculty research that fuels scientific advancement and makes our society healthier, wealthier and wiser.

This policy will bring many ongoing and future research projects to a halt, wasting time, money and talent.

Fourth, our higher education system is essential to promoting American ideals and interests throughout the world. The U.S. is unique in the extent to which we protect freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and academic freedom. The more we can promote those values in future leaders across the world, the better off everyone will be. Rather than spending trillions of dollars to advance our interests in other ways, we make money by educating international students.

Finally, it is immoral to torment international students with these arbitrary, chaotic policies. They do not know from year to year or even month to month if they will be allowed to stay and finish their studies. They have uprooted their lives, and we have taken their money and labor, much to our own benefit. We promised them educational opportunity in return. We should make good on our promises. Please write your senators, representatives, and other officials to let them know you oppose this policy and you support our international students.

Jeremy Fiel is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Arizona.

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