Op-Ed: Though ICE Might Not Want International Students, Here’s Why New Jersey Should

Michael W. Klein | July 28, 2020 | Opinion, Education
As ICE officials try to bar foreign students from entering the U.S., let’s recognize the students’ valuable contributions to New Jersey
Michael W. Klein

From college to law school to graduate school, I was lucky to study alongside classmates from countries like Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Chile. Thanks to the F-1 visa program, we could learn from each other in class and then cross cultural barriers over conversations in dining halls and courtyards. I learned a painful lesson from a classmate from India who lived down the hall when, during a softball game, he whizzed the ball across the field into my mitt. “Where did you learn to throw so hard?” I asked, rasping my hand. “Playing cricket,” he said with a smile.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) threw a brushback pitch at international students who are starting their studies this fall with a rule issued July 24 barring them from entering the U.S. if all of their courses will be online, even if their college campus will be closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. An earlier ICE rule issued July 6 but rescinded eight days later threatened to deport all international students, or not allow them in the U.S. in the first place, if they enrolled only in online classes this fall.

A review of almost 3,000 American colleges and universities shows more institutions planning to offer classes fully or primarily online than fully or primarily in person, or a hybrid of online and in-person classes. Most prominently in New Jersey, Rutgers University will deliver most of its courses remotely this fall. With these local decisions affecting students around the world, we need to recognize the integral role international students play in the mission of New Jersey’s institutions of higher education, and the contributions they make to our state’s economy.

According to the Institute of International Education, 23,456 international students attended New Jersey’s public and private colleges and universities in 2019, encompassing undergraduates, graduate students, and students in Optional Practical Training (OPT), which is temporary employment directly related to a student’s academic major. Several New Jersey institutions are national leaders in opening their gates to students from other countries, again according to the IIE. Rutgers is ranked 26th among doctorate-granting universities, with 6,983 students; Fairleigh Dickinson’s Metropolitan campus is 18th among master’s colleges and universities (1,300 students); Drew University is eighth among baccalaureate colleges (412 students); and Bergen Community College ranks 33rd among community colleges (582 students).

Local students benefit 

“Colleges in the state inspire their students to become lifelong learners, unafraid to question past cultural assumptions and view diversity as something to value — not merely tolerate,” New Jersey’s state plan for higher education states. During this time of heightened awareness of structural racism and renewed calls for social justice in the U.S., having students value diversity is more important than ever. In a recent survey, North American institutions reported that the biggest benefit of internationalizing their campuses by enrolling foreign students and offering programs like study abroad and international research opportunities is “increased international awareness of/deeper engagement with global issues by students.”

ICE’s initial threat to international students instantly grabbed the awareness of their U.S. classmates and got them engaged. Support Our International Students started as a Google doc and expanded to a website to connect international students to U.S.-based students to see if they could swap classes: trade a spot in an online class for a seat in an in-person class, lab, or workshop. It got 1 million hits in its first 24 hours.

If this evidence of empathy and educational engagement is not enough, then consider the economic contributions of students from around the world. NAFSA’s International Student Economic Value Tool found that close to 1.1 million international students studying at colleges and universities in the U.S. contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 458,290 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year. The more than 23,000 international students in New Jersey contributed $823.1 million to our economy and supported 9,674 jobs.

The future of the nation’s economy depends on attracting and keeping students from abroad. In 2015, more than 42% of STEM graduate students at U.S. colleges and universities were international students. In the specific fields of electrical engineering and computer science, more than 79% of graduate students in the U.S. were from other countries.

Not long ago, the federal government supported, rather than stifled, international higher education. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Commerce helped organize 30 Study State organizations, including Study New Jersey, with a mission to promote education and training in the U.S. Eighteen institutions still make up Study New Jersey, with a goal “to promote the state of New Jersey as the premiere destination for international students to study at one of our high schools, language schools, community colleges, or four year colleges and universities.” Their activities include college fairs and instant-decision days for international students.

Lawsuit against ‘cruel, abrupt, unlawful’ action

New Jersey was well represented in the fight against the original ICE rules. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal joined AGs from 16 other states and the District of Columbia in a lawsuit challenging “the federal government’s  cruel, abrupt, and unlawful action.” Rutgers and Princeton were among 59 colleges and universities, and Rider University was one of 14 other institutions, that filed briefs supporting the court case brought by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology challenging ICE’s rule as “arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion.” The brief joined by Rutgers and Princeton noted that students expelled from the U.S. would “then need to continue their studies under challenging conditions such as attending classes in the middle of the night, with unreliable internet connections, and for some students, the threat of government censorship or civil strife.”

The attorney general and our universities need to stay vigilant against further immigration restrictions on international students and workers. The recent suspension of work visas, including H-1B visas that allow U.S. companies to hire highly skilled foreign workers, has significant implication for New Jersey: In fiscal year 2019 alone, 11,610 workers received initial approval, and 29,862 workers received continuing approval, for H-1B visas to work here.

My college friend with the rifle arm from India got an engineering degree and now works for Intel out in California. Today’s international students deserve a level playing field, and reliable rules for visas, so they, too, can contribute to our classrooms, labs, and communities.