Tuesday, July 14, 2020

PUNISHING STUDENTS, PUNISHING THE FUTURE

Entering Harvard Yard   (AP Photo)
July 14 update: After considerable push-back from Harvard, MIT and dozens of colleges across America, Trump has backed down from his stupid, divisive and prejudicial policy of deporting foreign students who take online courses when many universities are offering only online instruction in the interests of public health.


BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

These are tough times for internationally-minded people, and international students in particular. Chinese students in the United States, the largest single national cohort, bear a special burden since their home country and host country are increasingly at odds.

The dislocations and distress caused by the pandemic are bad enough, but how does it make a Chinese student feel when the US president calls Covid-19 the “Kung Flu,” or the “China virus”?

Threats of deportation come on the heels not just of prejudiced language, but an orchestrated media campaign to demonize all things China. It’s not just that an aggressive electronics competitor such as Huawei that is singled out for opprobrium, or state-linked Confucius Institutes and Chinese media firms that are being shown the door, but Chinese teenagers who have come to the US to study are darkly viewed as spies.

These murky and malevolent nationalist currents threaten to upend international education as we know it

The pandemic has caused schools around the globe to shutter. Classrooms are empty while teachers scramble with online pedagogy to find new ways to pass the torch of knowledge. Meanwhile, sports, music, club activities, co-mingling and all the fun stuff cancelled.

As if all this wasn’t traumatic enough, highly-placed politicians are open purveyors of intolerance, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio. They join White House advisors Peter Navarro and Stephen Miller in seeking to exploit the fear, dislocation and stress of the pandemic to promote nativist agendas.

The US hosts a million students from around the world, with 270,000 students from China.
On July 6, the Trump White House announced it would deny visas to international students if their host institutions offer only online instruction in the fall term, even if it is done for the sake of public health and safety.

To single out international students who have studied hard, trained long and travelled far for gratuitous deportation is a slap in the face of a new generation.

It is not just a cruel jab, but a self-inflicted wound. Cultural exchange has long been a core element of US diplomacy, the US economy has long been the beneficiary of highly skilled workers, and the business of educating the world is big business. The financial contribution from Chinese students alone amounts to some 15 billion US dollars in tuition and living expenses.
                       
The soft power self-goal and economic fallout is dire enough, but resentment, once unleashed, is hard to contain. The administration’s gleeful intolerance sows emotional distress, division and further rattles a badly-rattled world.

If put into effect, the punitive measure will immediately render illegal hundreds of thousands of F-1 visa holders already in the US for an education, while pre-emptively dashing the hopes of those poised to come.

A generation of grass-roots ambassadors are being told to go back where you come from.
Not welcome anymore.

Dreams and well-laid plans are being dashed in real time, even with deposits paid and acceptance letters in hand. The obstacles to travel during the pandemic are daunting enough, but visa abrogation or denial is a game-ender.

The statue of liberty is no longer facing the sea but has turned her back to the world.

And why is the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, known by its appropriately chilly acronym ICE, is slamming the door to constructive exchange with China, India, Korea and other nations? For what lofty cause?
           
Trump’s abortive border wall is testament to his fear of foreigners. His documented disdain for experts suggests a long-standing intellectual insecurity, buttressed by the claim of his niece that he cheated on his SATs to get into college.

There’s even a domestic angle. The ICE directive puts pressure on school leaders to open quickly against their better judgement, in keeping with Trump’s political calculation that lockdowns and mitigation will cost him re-election.

Whatever the twisted logic, it is Machiavellian and mean-spirited.

The trauma of rejection, the lost opportunities to learn, and the hardening of national chauvinism on both sides of the Pacific will have long-lasting effects.

Newsweek has reported that the unintended effect of such racism is to make knee-jerk patriots of young people who otherwise came to the US with an open mind.

What’s more, to cast aspersions of espionage on hundreds of thousands of ordinary students is to betray the core American legal tenet, “innocent till proven guilty.”

The pandemic is a shared problem dividing people. Harsh new realities have accelerated negative trends already in place and given xenophobic politicians around the world novel excuses to demonize foreigners, deny visas and limit travel.

This body blow to international education and exchange risks creating a lost generation subject to turbulent intolerance and diminished hopes for the future.

For now, pity the Chinese student stranded in a land that says it will deport them if the college they have sacrificed so much to enroll in and attend is forced, for the sake of public health, to shift to online learning. This tough, temporary measure is not easy for anyone. Students, professors and college communities want more than anyone for campus life to go back to normal.

But these are not normal times.