ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a U.S. federal law enforcement agency under the U.S. Homeland Security with a mission to protect America from the cross-border crimes (such as drug smuggling) and illegal immigration (such as human trafficking) that threaten national security and public safety. The current agency acting director is Michael Albence who manages two main components: Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). ICE does not patrol American borders which are conducted by a sister agency, the U.S. Border Control, but ICE agents carry weapons and ICE maintains attachés at major U.S. diplomatic missions overseas, presumably for facilitating processing reentry and deporting immigrants and criminals. Nowadays, if a foreign student, especially a Chinese student, would hear the name ICE, chances were that the student might feel a chill in his or her spine. Why? Because the Chinese students are facing a threat being forced to leave the U.S. or having difficulty to come back to studies in the Fall.
You may think this can not happen. There are about 1.1 million foreign students in this country and Chinese students are more than 375,000. Many universities including the top schools depend on the enrollment of foreign students to maintain their curriculum programs and the full utilization of their faculty. However, the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. has forced universities and even K-12 to offer online learning instead of in-class learning. As the pandemic situation had not been managed under control in many states, the likelihood of returning to campus study is questionable. The U.S. federal administration seems to maintain a position that returning to normal (that includes re-opening schools) are important to our economy and our economy is more important than saving lives under pandemic. Thus, the ICE agency announced (July 6th, 2020) that if schools decide to offer online-only education, then any foreign student holding F-1 (academic study) and M-1 (vocational training) visas “may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
This is the bombshell falling on many campuses. The options for students are few, either one has to transfer to a school having a regular campus curriculum or at least a hybrid model in the Fall or one has to take the alternative returning to his or her home country. Since many schools are not certain what they will do in the Fall, the first option offers no comfort to either students nor schools. As the pandemic statistics are still threatening, the travel conditions are dire. For instance, China is restricting air flights to allow mainland China carriers to fly just one flight per week on one route to any country and foreign airlines to operate just one flight per week to China. This policy has been in place since March 29 and has been extended to the Fall into October. What this means is that the Chinese students can not easily book a flight home or coming back to the U.S. to resume studies. In addition, the flights are very expensive due to limited supply and heavy demand.
We could not help feel sympathy for the foreign students especially the Chinese students. 2020 being the presidential election year, both parties seem to follow the legacy national politics, that is focusing on a foreign target to divert voters attention away from our domestic problems. This year, our domestic problems are compounded by the COVID-19 world pandemic, not only from economic point of view (high unemployment especially) but also from the stand of national preparedness for emergencies. Our government’s attention (both administration and Congress) were first diverted away from the pandemic virus by bipartisan politics (impeachment and mutual sabotaging) and then competing in shifting blames from each other to China. Trade imbalance had been in existence through several Administrations. National preparedness for emergency such as corona virus was also a domestic issue transcending over several Administrations. Instead of reflecting on why we are not well prepared to handle the pandemic we focus on blaming China. Ironically, China is the only large country that has managed the pandemic well.
The Chinese students face one more stress from social media in addition to the above visa and travel issues. They have received very mixed feelings from the chat lines. Some people showed sympathy to their plight but more expressed that they were not welcome home simply because they might be bringing the corona virus back. The worsening US-China relations, the hostile policy towards Chinese students and the escalating pandemic cases inevitably caused dramatic drops in Chinese student enrollment at American universities. A few universities have reported their enrollment figures, for example, a 34% drop in new Chinese graduate students at Bentley University in Massachusetts, a 23% drop in Chinese student enrollment at the University of Vermont and a 20% drop in Chinese student enrollment at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The University of Illinois was smart enough to have taken an insurance Policy that it will be paid US$60 million if revenue from Chinese students dropping 20 per cent or more. Unfortunately, not many universities had such a foresight.
It is an indisputable fact that the U.S. has benefited from foreign students who decided to stay in the U.S. as immigrants. Some would even say that the U.S. owed her superpower status to the foreign immigrants’ contribution over the past century. Hence, this new visa policy is extremely short-sighted. There is no justification for issuing such a directive even China is targeted as a competitor. As an immigrant nation, the nation must be sensitive to discrimination, especially racial discrimination; any discrimination is a poison to patriotism. The ICE announcement does not only have a spine-chilling effect on foreign students but also is like pouring a bucket of ice water over patriotic naturalized immigrants. Fortunately, Harvard, MIT, California Public University system and others had sued the government on this issue and they won!