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Immigration Enforcement and the Impact on Higher Education

by Edward Alden
March 22, 2017

University students listen while classmates make a presentation (Stephen Lam/Reuters).

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I delivered a short talk yesterday, March 21, at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, as part of a panel discussion arranged by Professor Al Teich on the impact of the Trump administration’s immigration and visa policies on foreign students, scientists, and other researchers. My remarks are below:

I must admit I had rather naively hoped that I would never participate in this sort of conversation again. As a reporter for the Financial Times, I had covered in great detail the fallout for universities and for U.S.-based businesses of the various decisions that were made to restrict travel to the United States after 9/11. When I joined the Council on Foreign Relations in 2007, I spent another year researching the topic and turned it into a book, The Closing of the American Border (with apologies to Alan Bloom) that was published in 2008.

The book documented the serious costs of some of the post-9/11 travel restrictions—research projects that were shot down because professors or graduate students ended up stuck outside the United States, lengthy visa processing delays for those who were admitted, the cancelling of scientific conferences in the United States because participants could not get visas to come here, and for several years the first reduction in the number of foreign students studying in the United States since the end of World War II.

But even as I told all these stories in my book, I had some underlying sympathy for the George W. Bush administration and what it was trying to do. The 9/11 attacks, which I covered as a reporter, were obviously horrific, not just for the loss of life but for the sense of incredible vulnerability that many Americans felt in the aftermath. All 19 of the 9/11 hijackers had arrived in this country on legal visas, and it was evident to anyone paying attention that our visa and border security systems were hopelessly inadequate. The student visa rules were no exception—the first al-Qaeda attack in the United States, the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center, was master-minded by a Jordanian who had received a visa to attend Wichita State University and then just disappeared into the country. There was no system in place for tracking foreign students, and no real system even for verifying the legitimacy of the institutions they were attending. And the universities for a long time resisted any efforts to improve monitoring of student visa holders, not wanting to be in any way deputized by the federal government in the service of immigration enforcement.

So while some of the Bush administration initiatives were crude, they were mostly understandable under the circumstances. President Bush was very much committed to restoring U.S. openness, and as new and improved screening procedures were put in place, the cruder mechanisms—mostly intrusive screening requirements based on nationality, what we today would call “extreme vetting”—were replaced with intelligence-drive targeting. And as the visa delays receded and the procedures improved, foreign students and scientists returned fairly eagerly to the United States. By 2007 the foreign student numbers had reached the pre-9/11 level, and again began to surge from there.

There was a lot of willingness on the part of many of those I interviewed—even those whose lives were truly upended by their visa problems—to forgive the United States for what was seen as a understandable over-reaction in the aftermath of a genuine crisis. They were almost all genuinely willing to give this country a second chance, and grateful for the opportunities it had opened to them.

I fear that the world—and especially those best and brightest we are trying to attract to our universities—are not going to be so forgiving this time around. There is no 9/11 that can be used to justify the new restrictions, just a change in the political culture of this country that was reflected in the November elections.

Instead of improving intelligence-based targeting, this administration is reverting to crude tools—the travel ban targeted at specific countries, stepped up immigration enforcement, building a wall along the border with Mexico, and generally increased harassment in entry procedures, mostly targeted at those with Muslim-sounding names.

Having watched this story play out before, this is what worries me most—that the impact is going to be much deeper than the fairly narrow scope of some of the measures would indicate. I am sure we will get into specifics about how many students will be directly affected by the travel ban—assuming it gets through the courts, which I think it will. But the reverberations are going to be far broader.

Many of those who were affected by the post-9/11 restrictions came from countries with no connection to Islamic radicalism at all, including China, Russia and India. They were caught in the general slowdown of visa processing that accompanied the ramped-up security measures. That is likely to happen again, particularly if Congress takes an axe to the State Department budget as the president has requested, which will sharply reduce the number of consular officers.

Those from many other countries were just put off by the newly aggressive attitude of Customs and Border Protection officials; we are seeing that again, with searches for flights to the United States from overseas falling sharply.

There will be students affected by reductions in work opportunities—DHS has just shut down “premium processing” for H-1B visas, which is going to leave many foreign students who had expected to start working this year in limbo.

The administration has signaled its intention to crack down on what it sees as fraud in the H-1B program, and is also opposed to the expansion of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program for foreign students—which allows them to work in the United States while remaining on a student visa—that occurred under the Obama administration.

All of these, and other measures not yet foreseen, will send a message to foreign students that the United States is harder to enter as a student, and the prospects for remaining and working afterwards are diminished. That will keep many bright students away, even from those countries not directly targeted by these measures. We are likely to see similar effects in reducing scientific collaboration between U.S. and foreign researchers.

And let me just close with a quote on what’s at stake in all of this. It is not just the well-being of our universities, though I care very much about that. It is really about the future of our economy.

This is a quote I used in my book from the economic geographer Richard Florida, who makes his home in Toronto I would note. He wrote: “In today’s global economy, the places that attract and retain talent will win, and those that don’t will lose. Today, the terms of competition revolve around a central axis: a nation’s ability to mobilize, attract and retain human creative talent. Every key dimension of international economic leadership, from manufacturing excellence to scientific and technological advancement, will depend on this ability.”

In other words, if you wanted to lead the United States away from greatness and into mediocrity, these sorts of travel and immigration restrictions are a pretty good way to achieve that goal.

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