Once upon a time, not too long ago, America saw itself as exporting ideals of democracy and progress, welcoming foreign students into our universities and sending them home wiser not just in engineering and chemistry and medical science, but in ideas, values, and culture. As J. William Fulbright said about his own program to bring students to the Unites States, the “mission is to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”

Let’s leave aside the imperialist hauteur of that statement, its remarkable confidence in American superiority, and note that a number of beliefs it represents seem to have disappeared. Does anyone still think that the US has an interest in bringing peace and friendship to the world? Does anyone still believe that the US government is trying to inject more compassion into world affairs?

A nail in the coffin of that idea was supplied by this week’s announcement by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement that international students attending school in the country cannot remain here if their colleges and universities are holding classes online this coming term. Their student visas are now invalid. They can stay if they transfer to a college where they take in-person classes, or if their campuses “open” — that is, if their schools ignore the CDC guidelines for safe reopening and instead follow the Trump reelection team’s desire to score imaginary victories over the virus. 

ICE has long had a somewhat commonsense rule against issuing F-1 visas to students taking exclusively online degrees. Since the students didn’t need to be in the US to pursue these degrees, there was no justification for visas. This spring, ICE loosened its rules about online classes to allow students to stay when campuses closed. But no longer, and for two related reasons: Trump is determined to say the country has returned to normal in time for the election, and he is convinced that he was elected and will be reelected because of his explicitly nativist, anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric. Every decision he makes, as even John Bolton has testified, is based on how it will help his reelection, and this is a twofer. It adds one or two more dog-whistles to the symphony of Trumpian dog-whistles, as it attacks foreigners even while it damages academia, students, and faculty — like immigrants, among Trumpworld’s favorite bogeypeople. International students are 10% of University of California’s student population, and put in significantly more than 10% of its tuition revenue. Kicking them out of the country would have a devastating fiscal impact.

Not to mention how it might impact each graduate student, like one from Uganda, say, who will have to break her lease or continue paying rent indefinitely on an empty apartment in the US, who will have to risk her life by going through airports and getting on a plane for the 22-hour trip home, which assumes, of course, that she can find the money for the flight on a graduate student budget. Once back in Kampala, she will need to get up in the middle of the night to take her online classes or take care of any business that requires a phone call or Zoom session. In order to continue working as a teaching assistant, she will need to get up in the middle of the night to teach and hold office hours. And if she happens to live in a rural village, she will have constant problems with internet access. Not only will her education suffer, but so will that of her students.

And of course the health of her family and neighbors will be threatened as well. The US has by far the largest number of COVID-19 cases, and our rate of infection is higher than that of all but 12 other countries. Our per capita infection rate is 440 times greater than Uganda’s.

Who wants this, besides the President and his campaign? It protects nobody from anything — quite the opposite: it either turns campuses into super-spreaders or pushes them off a fiscal cliff. It is blackmail, pure and simple. The latest analysis by NAFSA, the largest nonprofit dedicated to international education, finds that international students add $41 billion to the US economy and support 428,290 jobs. With the highest unemployment in a generation, and with colleges and universities already in dire financial straits, why would the federal government make things radically worse?

Because the Trump campaign makes phantasmal gains. Meanwhile my Ugandan student and the 1.1 million other international students in the US, along with their educational institutions, pay the immediate price. As do the students’ landlords, their grocers, and everyone else in that $41 billion chain. For some students, this will be the proverbial straw, and their dreams of a degree will not just be deferred but canceled. And for some landlords and grocers and university employees this may spell economic disaster. To soothe his reelection anxiety, Trump disperses widespread pain and death. Yes, separating children from their parents at the border and putting them all in cages is much worse, but this self-inflicted economic wound and its attendant human misery, too, is an outrage. Worse, of course, would be the colleges and universities paying the blackmail, thus throwing gasoline on the pandemic’s destructive fire. For now, they have turned to the courts to save us from our own government — we hope they will prevail.

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Tom Lutz is the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books and a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside. His latest book is Born Slippy: A Novel (Repeater 2020).