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Dear Editor,

As a dual citizen of the US and Canada and a scholar of internationalization in higher education, I took immediate notice to the Opinion column, titled “International Students Shouldn’t be Political Pawns,”[i] by my friend and colleague Jenny J. Lee. In the context of Monday’s announcement[ii] of a change to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)[iii] where “Non-immigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” Lee stated that “[w]hile this U.S. Department of Homeland Security policy has generated more questions than answers, what is clear is that it will have no real effect on immigration over the long term.”

She continued by saying that “[t]he recent SEVP policy is in no way neutral, nor is the concern a matter of immigration. It reflects a strong political stance toward reopening colleges and universities, regardless of international students’ economic impact of $41 billion and support for more than 450,000 U.S. jobs. Whether international students stay or return to their home countries is secondary.”

I agree with Lee that the SEVP alterations are not neutral and that carelessly reopening campuses is a hidden agenda in these changes, but I cannot believe that there will be “no real effect” of these events on U.S. immigration in the short or long term, nor do I think that immigration is not a central target of this and other U.S. policy changes issued by the White House during the Trump administration.

Rather, I see the SEVP announcement as what our colleague Gary Rhoades at the University of Arizona calls a “two-fer” in US educational policy: in this case it is both a highly visible, racist and politicized posture-taking against foreign nationals who might enter the higher education system as a gateway to long-term immigration and a viable threat to globalizing colleges and universities that have become reliant upon international student tuition to sustain operations amid decades of public-sector erosion by “lean government” proponents.

Given Trump’s ideological position on the social role of colleges and universities,[iv] we might go a step further and liken these recent changes to postsecondary policy as a type of Denial of Service attack (DoS attack) on the U.S. higher education system by this administration. The U.S. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) describes a DoS condition as being “accomplished by flooding the targeted host or network with traffic until the target cannot respond or simply crashes, preventing access for legitimate users. DoS attacks can cost an organization both time and money while their resources and services are inaccessible.”[v]

If we view the SEVP change as part of an ongoing “policy DoS attack” by the White House, we can understand that higher education has been under a consistent, and potentially coordinated, attack dating back to the “year of travel bans”[vi] as its opening salvo, and continuing through the more recent questioning of Optional Practical Training (OPT) policies[vii], barring entry to “certain” Chinese students[viii], under-funding of Hispanic-Serving-Institutions (HSIs) as a result of the CARES Act[ix], expansion of immigration restrictions through the H1b and J-visa programs[x], and statements about federal hiring preferences relative to postsecondary degrees[xi]. These continued policy proposals and alterations have cost higher education institutions “both time and money while their resources and services are inaccessible,” akin to a denial-of-service attack on the sector as a whole.

Furthermore, these attacks divert attention away from academia’s ongoing work of creating more equitable and just colleges and universities, interrupting needed conversations about how to redress and address the harms done by decades of Indigenous land theft, pillaged meritocracy, racialization and oppression committed within and by our institutions. We might see these diversions as part of the modus operandi of the policy DoS attack.

In her opinion piece, Lee referenced Dr. Esther D. Brimmer, Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, who said “[u]nfortunately, this administration continues to enact policies which only increase the barriers to studying here, and that’s a serious concern. At a time when new international student enrollment is in decline, our nation risks losing global talent with new policies that hurt us academically and economically.”[xii] I agree with Lee and Brimmer, but the stakes are much higher than educational barriers for international students. Their lives, our lives, and the viability of our institutions are on the line.

While it is true that international students are “caught in this political power play between the Trump administration and the higher education sector” as Lee describes, we should also understand that the U.S. federal government is issuing policy malware against the entire higher education sector. The White House is weaponizing the relative leverage of international student tuition within institutional budgets while simultaneously deporting or threatening to deport international students, punishing the sector for both its ideological openness and the good sense to not be physically “open” during an ongoing pandemic.

I cannot defend the way that some colleges and universities have leveraged their futures on international student enrollments and tuition dollars, which undervalues the many contributions of international students, but it is plain to see how reliance on this revenue stream has provided nationalistic isolationists with a system-wide vulnerability that enabled their deadly bargain, forcing the institutional choice of ransoming safety for sustainability, or vice versa.

We must view this as a viral era, metaphorically, digitally, and epidemiologically. Academic vulnerabilities, both personal and professional, are being targeted by governments at all levels, alongside threats to the health and safety of our most precariously positioned international and domestic students. In addition, academic “outsiders” in locations outside of the U.S., like myself, should not be silent and await the “Trump Bump”[xiii] in international student enrollments that might follow this continued self-immolation within the U.S. system. We face similar conditions, or soon will if “business as usual” continues in this viral age. As Lee said, “now is the time to take immediate action in opposing this nonsensical order.”

--Amy Scott Metcalfe
Professor in the Department of Educational Studies
University of British Columbia.


[i] “International Students Shouldn’t Be Political Pawns” (July 8, 2020)


[ii] “International Students Banned From Online-Only Instruction” (July 7, 2020)

[iv] “Trump signs executive order on free speech on college campuses” (March 21, 2020, The Washington Post)


[viii] “Trump Proclamation Bars Entry of Certain Chinese Students” (June 1, 2020)


[ix] “CARES Act Formula Hurt Hispanic-Serving Colleges” (June 16, 2020)


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