Takeaway: The Trump administration was forced to abandon new visa restrictions on international students after a wave of opposition swept universities around the country. The reversal is a step in the right direction, but we have a ways to go before international students and graduate workers will believe their futures are secure. Rutgers International Students Working Group (see their video here) played an important role in this resistance. We stand with them in urging President Holloway and the Rutgers administration to hear their voices and protect all the members of our community.
Faced with a nationwide outcry from students, unions, and universities, the Trump administration retreated from cruel new visa restrictions that had plunged international students into fear and confusion. Tuesday’s concession from federal authorities is an important victory for some of our most vulnerable colleagues and fellow union members, but the threat isn’t gone. We’re writing to tell you what our union and its international grad workers are doing about it.
Last week, ICE issued new “guidance” that overturned a more flexible policy adopted last spring regarding the legal status of F-1 and M-1 visa holders. International students taking all their classes online would have lost their legal status under the rules. At a university like Rutgers, which has announced a hybrid plan for reopening in the fall, these students and grad workers would have been forced to choose between taking in-person classes, thereby risking their health, and leaving the country immediately. Please watch the video of our International Students Working Group explaining the dire consequences.
As soon as the ICE “guidance” was announced early last week, international graduate workers began working together, answering each other’s questions and organizing opposition. Harvard and MIT filed the first of several lawsuits challenging the restrictions, and unions representing international graduate workers, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), filed a friend-of-the-court brief that included the testimonies of their affected members. As the brief stated:
“ICE’s sudden reversal would require amici union’s graduate worker members to risk their health, and in some cases their safety, either by returning to their countries of citizenship or by entering unsafe in-person classes as teachers and students. Such a policy is cruel, irrational, and unnecessary. Whichever choice these individual graduate workers make—to leave or to risk further spread of the disease to their students, co-researchers, and others on campus—the unnecessary choice weakens the university communities of which graduate workers form an essential part.”
To its credit, Rutgers, under new President Jonathan Holloway, also supported the Harvard-MIT lawsuit with its own brief, joining more than 200 colleges in all. In announcing the university’s participation, President Holloway said, “Our mission is to educate and improve the lives of our community locally and globally. Our international students are a critical part of that mission, and we will do everything in our power to defend their ability to remain in the U.S. and continue their education at Rutgers.”
The order is closely connected to the wider push by the Trump administration to pressure public education institutions at every level, from pre-K to higher ed, to reopen this fall in person, regardless of the risks to the health and safety of students, staff, faculty, and the wider public. This is a concern for every member of our union and our partners in the Coalition of Rutgers Unions, but the effect on international students and grad workers is particularly cynical and inhumane: as our International Students Working Group colleagues say in their video, they are being used as pawns to put pressure on universities to hold in-person classes.
Rutgers AAUP-AFT has been fighting to make sure the fall semester and future ones take place in a way that safeguards the safety and well-being of every student, faculty member, and staff member. To accomplish this for all, we need to stand beside international students and graduate workers against any further threat.
Our support for our graduate worker colleagues doesn’t stop with confronting this Trump administration order. In the spring, our Coalition insisted in its people-centered approach that funding packages for grad students must be extended. We are equally insistent that TAs and GAs who choose to remain abroad this summer and fall, as the pandemic surges again, must be paid for teaching and working remotely. This is no different from a faculty member who might choose to work from another state.
Our graduate worker leaders have done a great deal to help their colleagues at Rutgers and beyond to understand the situation and access the resources available to them. But the university has an even greater capacity to offer these resources, which have been urgently needed throughout the Trump administration and long before it. We believe President Holloway’s tenure offers the opportunity to work toward something that was continually subverted at each step by the Barchi administration: genuine collaboration in the governance of our university, shared by students, staff, faculty, and the communities that surround us.
Now that ICE’s cruel restrictions have been rescinded for a while, we invite the Rutgers University administration to work with us in protecting international students and workers and renewing the shared governance of our university.
Todd and Becky
Todd Wolfson, President, Rutgers AAUP-AFT
Rebecca Givan, Vice President, Rutgers AAUP-AFT
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Find the latest messages to members and union statements here.
Read how Rutgers AAUP-AFT is confronting the crisis here.