Just ten days after threatening to strip international students of their visas if they were enrolled in online-only courses this fall, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rescinded its plan. This abrupt reversal, announced on Wednesday July 14, 2020, followed lawsuits from 200 universities and attorneys-general in 17 states, who characterized the policy as cruel and “procedurally defective.”

But the short episode achieved its purpose: intensifying the discomfort on international students and workers by throwing international students, college administrators, and faculty into needless turmoil. While many understood the move as intended to coerce universities to open up their campuses at a time when COVID-19 cases are soaring in the United States, the short-lived policy represents more than Trump’s denial of the global pandemic and his prioritizing of the economy over human lives. It is not only consistent with a longer history of racist, xenophobic immigration policies in the United States, but also demonstrates under-utilized power of universities to fight on behalf of all its non-citizen students, not just those seen as cash cows.

While the student ban may have come as a shock to universities and their international students, it is entirely consonant with a Trump administration immigration policy agenda that frames internationals as dangerous. Students who do not physically clock-in to in-person classes “raise significant national security concerns,” ICE announced, recycling a hackneyed xenophobic trope about “foreigners” as a threat to domestic safety. Trump has been unequivocal in his antipathy towards immigrants, describing non-citizens as “animals,” “stone cold criminals,” and “bad hombres” from “shithole countries.”

Trump administration policies have been aimed at ending both legal and illegal immigration by using executive powers that go well beyond existing laws to make the United States an inhospitable and insecure destination. Just months after coming to power, Trump issued what the courts ultimately affirmed was a Muslim ban, restricting foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. This was followed by efforts to ramp up militarization of the U.S.–Mexico border and terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); the separation of more than 5,400 children from their families at the border since 2017; the denial of asylum seekers from Central America; and a drastic reduction in refugee admissions, from 85,000 in 2016 to 18,000 this year.

The most recent attack on students and faculty, a historically protected group in the United States, represents a new phase in this assault. But the rescinded guideline also expands on a long history of nativist and racist immigration policy in the United States, beginning with the Naturalization Act of 1790 that limited citizenship to “free white persons” of “good moral character.” Until 1965, when immigration was significantly opened to non-European migrants, partly as a response to Cold War anti-Communism, each immigration law reflected intensified efforts to shore up white supremacy.  

But since the 1990s, deportation has replaced exclusion, in a convergence between immigration policy and the criminal justice system known as “crimmigation.” Following 9/11 and the “war on terror,” immigration rules and enforcement were further tightened and enforced by the newly minted Department of Homeland Security, with a sharp rise in surveillance, racial profiling, and deportations. With these systems in place, removals of unauthorized immigrants soared to roughly three million under the Obama administration, numbers that eclipsed deportations carried out in both the Clinton and Bush presidencies. The grounds for deportation have widened to include offenses as minor as a traffic violation. The Trump administration has made this, and the fear of being in public, a central strategy in its immigrant exclusion policy. According to the latest data from the Department of Justice Bureau of Statistics, 64 percent of all federal arrests in 2018 were non-citizens detained, and often deported, for nonviolent offenses.

Through the attempted student ban, the Trump administration has also reinforced an image of the menacing and diseased “foreigners” characteristic of the mid-twentieth-century stereotypes that Donald Trump grew up with in racially segregated Queens, New York. At a moment when the government’s hapless, feeble, and confused response to a pandemic ravaging the nation is on full display, forcing international students out of the country is a way of distracting from this failure and reclaiming political power. But it also reassures xenophobic Trump supporters that these fictional sources of disease are being dealt with and that the nation’s borders are being secured against the real and blameworthy source of the virus.

It is no secret that students from China in particular are a robust presence in American higher education and research. While the policy was addressed to all foreign nationals, the policy was consistent with Trump’s COVID-19 rhetoric: he has tweeted about the “Chinese Virus” and decried the “Kung Flu” at political rallies. Much like nineteenth-century public health rhetoric that targeted Asian American urban communities, these racist appellations imply that the virus, and the threat of contamination, are inherent properties of Chinese, Asian, and other immigrant bodies.

By threatening to expel international students who could not comply with existing residency requirements, the Trump administration proposed to kill two birds with one stone in the weeks before the election: whipping up anti-immigrant sentiments by conjuring racist fantasies about who is to blame for the ongoing health and economic crises, and creating a new path for deportation. As a bonus, it became a new phase in a “tough on China” policy that has mostly hamstrung the American economy without bringing promised jobs back to the United States.

But it also reflects the administration’s failure to stop COVID-19, a failure that has resulted in a single state — Florida — becoming the global epicenter for infections. The perverse message of the ICE guidance seemed to be that, since most of the 1,095,299 international students enrolled in U.S. colleges in 2018–19 come from China (369,548 students), and India (202,014 students), removing these students from the country would be a public health measure. While the student ban was withdrawn by the government in an emergency hearing in federal court, it nevertheless promoted an ugly narrative about the virus-spreading foreigner, a popular prejudice that has produced a surge of anti-Asian bigotry across the United States since January 2020.

But the Trump administration is also not unaware of the financial value of international students to U.S. educational institutions facing low enrollments due to the pandemic. Deportation was only one possible outcome: the other would have been to force colleges and universities to reopen regardless of whether it was safe to do so. Knowing that universities can ill-afford another financial blow at this point, the administration attempted to strong-arm them (as well as other major institutions and businesses) into re-opening their campuses by targeting a hefty revenue stream. In 2018–19, international students contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy while supporting 458,290 jobs. Similarly, a freeze on green cards for new immigrants as well as the suspension of temporary visas for skilled workers in June 2020 was framed as a way of preserving jobs for U.S. citizens during a recession, despite tech firms and multinational corporations arguing that the policy undermined economic recovery.

In other words, Trump administration policies are not just racist, they also represent net losses to the economy at a moment when it is struggling.

But we are also troubled by the implications of a moment in which some immigrants are deemed worthy of salvation but others remain incarcerated and subject to mass deportation. International students and university researchers are seen as “good” immigrants: documented, wealthy, and proficient, if not native, speakers of English, and therefore worthy of protection by their universities. This narrative extends to Dreamers, the high-achieving, undocumented youth who were brought to the United States by their parents as children “through no fault of their own” — but not to 234,000 other undocumented college students in the United States who remain subject to sudden deportation.

Universities have, until now, been reluctant to directly confront the federal government on its increasingly draconian policies: only 16 universities are self-declared sanctuary campuses, a designation which, at minimum, signals a break with administration policies.  While there is no uniform definition of what sanctuary entails, these institutions have pledged to refuse to cooperate with ICE officials, and some offer funding to applicants who are unable to obtain financial aid due to their immigration status.

Other universities would do well to regard the sanctuary campus designation as more than symbolic, and the temporary victory against ICE as a sign of their own power to defend their students from harm. Dismantling the good/bad immigrant narrative by providing protections to all international students is a necessary step towards challenging longstanding, racist immigration policies, as well as the racialized social hierarchy built on white supremacist values that the Trump administration has mobilized.

Omer Leshem, Joshua Maserow, and Maryam Omidi are doctoral candidates in the clinical psychology program at the New School for Social Research.