July 6, 2020

U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has just announced that international students with F-1 and M-1 visas taking a fully online course load must leave the United States or else face deportation. This unconscionable and draconian policy affects nearly ⅓ of the Northwestern’s graduate student population and nearly ¼ of its entire student body, at a moment when many international borders are closed and international travel is irregular and unreliable. Some students are currently not allowed to return home, while others are facing the indefinite disruption of the lives they have established over many years in this country.

This news is deeply distressing. The newly implemented rules are unclear on whether graduate students not taking coursework will be directly affected, and the very vagueness of the formulation is understandably causing immense distress among the members of an already vulnerable and important community of international graduate workers. Northwestern’s lack of a clear plan for the Fall adds to this distress, as it is impossible to know as of yet how much online versus in-person learning will take place at Northwestern during the fall. According to Point 3 of the Broadcast Message 2007-01, the deadline for the issuance of I-20s in the event that the school implements hybrid model instruction is August 4th, 2020, leaving less than a month for the institution to respond to this crisis, both on the school and departmental level. Among other requirements, Northwestern must certify that it is not operating entirely online; that each student is not taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester; and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program. Also, beyond its direct effect on graduate workers’ ability to stay in the country, the policy also effectively forces in-person contact in the fall, putting the health of all graduate workers at risk by forcing us to return to campus. 

This situation highlights the dangers of Northwestern’s reluctance to respond to and negotiate with graduate workers as workers in a timely manner. Our current precarious status in the academy exposes us, not just to the whims of our own university administration, but also to those of a federal government whose overt hostility to immigrants and foreigners is beyond doubt. We hope and expect that Northwestern will live up to the gravity of this attack on some of its most exposed members and take all steps necessary to ensure their safety. We note, however, that a graduate worker union with the power to collectively bargain on behalf of international graduate workers is the only way to ensure that the voices and needs of international graduate students and all graduate workers are meaningfully heard. The University’s refusal to recognize, negotiate, or even meaningfully communicate with NUGW at all remains a palpable barrier to ensuring international graduate workers have a say over their protection and livelihoods. 

Graduate workers who have found themselves in an already precarious position during this pandemic now face the choice of risking their lives in order to be able to stay in the country or facing deportation. We note also that the threat of ICE deportation is a racial justice issue. The United States immigration system disproportionately targets and unleashes state-sanctioned violence against Black, Brown, and other immigrants of color, operating to sustain and entrench United States white supremacy and imperialism. Under Trump, racialized threats to immigrants have intensified, and recent reporting demonstrates that Trump intends to use the crisis of the pandemic to “turn off the faucet of new immigrant labor,” as Trump’s white supremacist senior advisor Stephen Miller stated in April, and further embolden a politics of white nationalism and racist terror. If Northwestern actually “vehemently opposes anti-Blackness” and is committed to racial justice, as they have recently declared in various communications, they need to protect international students from this threat of deportation, ensure their ability to stay in the country without risking their health and livelihoods, and work with the graduate student workers in order to minimize health risk while ensuring that international students are allowed to remain to continue their studies. 

Due to the emergency nature of this issue, we ask the administration to release a detailed plan of action to protect students from possible deportation and the disruption of their courses of study by July 21st, 2020. We hope that the administration understands the extreme gravity of the issue and responds accordingly. Finally, if Northwestern intends to file a lawsuit to protect the rights and health of its international student community, we request to be notified immediately.