In summary

Our international students have paid tuition, signed housing leases and registered for classes; and now they have to get on the next plane home.

By Jayathi Y. Murthy, Special to CalMatters

Jayathi Y. Murthy is the dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science at UCLA, the first female dean in the school’s 75-year history, Engrdean@seas.ucla.edu.

When I read the new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidance on the Student Exchange and Visitor Program, a familiar feeling of dread washed over me. 

You see, I came to this country as an international student from India some 40 years ago and built my life here. I remember that time clearly: the thrill of being accepted to graduate school, the excitement of departure, the anxiety around money – the price of an airline ticket was a sizable fraction of my father’s annual salary. I remember all that like it was yesterday. 

And, I remember all the nagging fears that followed – every time I went home to visit, the prospect that I might not be allowed back. Crossing borders to obtain an education made one a pawn in domestic and international politics.

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Now, it’s happening again. On Monday, ICE announced a number of restrictions on non-immigrant students enrolled in U.S. universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. These new rules require international students in the U.S. to leave the country immediately or to take alternative steps if COVID-19 forces universities to adopt online-only instruction. The move potentially affects nearly a million international students currently in the U.S. – approximately 6,000 at UCLA.

You may wonder why going back to your own country to continue studies is such a burden. What’s so bad about taking online classes from the comfort of your own home? Well, universities are navigating a dynamic landscape as the pandemic surges, and the decisions they make about fall classes will be driven by sudden but necessary public health requirements. 

Our international students will have paid tuition, signed housing leases and registered for classes; and now, all of a sudden, they are required to abandon it all and get on the next plane.  

Then there is the problem of simply getting home. Many countries have closed their borders to incoming U.S. flights, and those that are open to U.S. travelers have long quarantines. Further, it is not guaranteed that you can return to your studies on time when universities resume full, on-campus instruction because U.S. consulates have significant visa backlogs due to COVID-19 closures.  

The new directive forces universities into an impossible situation: They must either offer on-campus classes in the face of a raging pandemic or see their international students leave campus, in some cases permanently. 

A provision in the ICE decision states that students will be required to leave the country in the middle of the school year even if their school begins the fall with some in-person classes but later transitions back to remote instruction for public health reasons. Forcing universities to go against common-sense public health measures jeopardizes the entire school community.  

And of course, there is the loss of significant income to public universities such as UCLA if large numbers of international students simply decide the U.S. is just not a welcoming place for them anymore.

Living in California, I don’t have to tell you about all the contributions that immigrants have made. So many of our tech companies that are the envy of the world were built by people who started as international students in our universities. I don’t have to tell you that many American Nobel Prize winners came to our country as international students. I don’t have to tell you that the work of international students has driven our economy for decades, and that they have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19.

But international students are not merely payers of university tuition and creators of high-tech jobs. They are first and foremost human beings and deserve to be treated reasonably and fairly.

By dealing arbitrarily and capriciously with international students, by imposing rules on them that have no discernible basis in science or reason or necessity, we further diminish our standing in the world and our own commitment to fairness. 

This inhumane and self-defeating decision by ICE must be reversed.

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Jayathi Y. Murthy was elected this year to the National Academy of Engineering, among the highest professional honors granted to an American engineer.

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