On election night a correspondent from the Wall Street Journal shared on Twitter an image of a young man in a kaffiyeh watching presidential election results. The man in the image is standing up, one hand on the handle of a suitcase as though he could leave at any moment. “Saudi students in the U.S. right now,” the tweet said.
The election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency left some in higher education worried that international students could be deterred or restricted from studying in the U.S. It also fueled concerns that students who came to the U.S. illegally as children and received temporary relief from deportation as well as work authorization under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program could be newly vulnerable.
Trump made a number of immigration-related policy proposals or statements throughout his 17-month campaign that have possible implications for international students on F-1 visas and those enrolled in the DACA program.
These include proposals related to visa policies. Trump at one point called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. He subsequently laid out general plans for ideological screening and what he called “extreme vetting” of all visa applicants coming from regions identified by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State as having “a history of exporting terrorism.” In an August speech outlining those plans, Trump cited a need to control the numbers of permanent immigrants and temporary visitors from the Middle East, a region that sends more than 100,000 students to U.S. universities.
Further, in October, Trump said he would “begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country and cancel visas to foreign countries that won’t take them back.” He did not name particular countries, but the New York Times noted that one country that would be affected under such a policy would be China, which sends more students to the U.S.—more than 300,000 in the 2014–15 academic year—than any other country.
“One of the core values of international education is about celebrating diversity and learning from differences,” said Rahul Choudaha, the co-founder of InterEdge.org, an international student services company. “Trump’s viewpoints are insular and not in line with the values of international education. It is likely that the future policies will start looking inward and slow down international education exchanges and student mobility.
“Career advancement is one of the prime motivations for international students to study in the U.S.,” Choudaha added. “Trump’s anti-immigrant stance may create stricter visa and immigration policies that may make it even more difficult for students to come to the U.S. and find internship and job opportunities.”
Ahmed Ezzeldin Mohamed, an Egyptian second-year political science Ph.D. student at Columbia University, said that Middle Eastern students coming to the U.S. already face high rates of visa denials and long delays in processing. “I know personal cases where people had to postpone their school one year because of the processing,” he said. Further screening, he said, could make it “infeasible” for Middle Eastern students to come to the U.S.
“Even if they get into the best school, they still can’t get into the country,” he said.
At one point early in the campaign, in a policy paper published in summer 2015, Trump called for the elimination of the J-1 exchange visa program through which foreign youth work in the U.S. It was unclear if the proposal referred to the J-1 program as a whole—parts of which colleges use to bring in visiting foreign scholars and, in some cases, students (though most students are on F-1 visas)—or just to jobs-related J-1 exchanges. The proposal regarding the J-1 program is no longer mentioned on the Trump campaign website.
Mark Overmann, the vice president of external affairs for InterExchange, which administers various J-1 exchange programs including for au pairs, camp counselors, and intern trainees, said in a statement on InterExchange’s website that while the organization takes “this potential threat to exchange programs seriously,” it is also optimistic about the support enjoyed by J-1 programs in Congress.
“The Exchange Visitor Program has many strong supporters throughout the country and government, including from bipartisan groups of members of both the Senate and the House,” Overmann wrote. “We will work with these senators and representatives, and all of our partners—exchange visitors, hosts, international cooperators, the State Department, foreign governments and our colleague exchange organizations—to advocate for the continued growth of the Exchange Visitor Program and other exchanges.”
Another area that has concerned many in higher education has to do with Trump’s stated opposition to the DACA program. NBC News noted that “Trump’s win leaves hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, with an uncertain future.”
“For these students themselves and potentially family members, there’s the real concern about being deported or losing their current status,” said David Oxtoby, the president of Pomona College, where, he said, about 3 percent of students are undocumented. “Currently they’re allowed to hold jobs and have somewhat normal types of student lives.”
“There are 800,000 of these students out there who in good faith put themselves forward and have been contributing members of society,” said Michael A. Olivas, the interim president of the University of Houston–Downtown, where about 45 percent of students are Latino. Olivas, a scholar of immigration and higher education law, is on leave from UH’s Law Center.
“Should they decide to do away with [DACA], I doubt they’ll try to remove and deport students who are currently in that program, but if they choose not to add more, what do we do with these kids that we made a bargain with—if you come forward and give us all your information and behave and go through criminal checks and so forth, we’ll suspend the deportation clock, we’ll consider you to be lawfully present with our permission, to give you a Social Security number, employment authorization? What’s going to happen to all of them? Rolling this back would be so detrimental.”
Olivas also emphasized the challenges higher education institutions will face when it comes to recruiting international students under a Trump presidency. “The confusion that’s occurred in the Brexit situation is going to be equivalent here, even more so, because there’s so much uncertainty, and I can’t imagine students from Latin America and South America who’ve found themselves characterized as rapists and criminals are going to want to come here.”
Olivas was referring to the speech with which Trump kicked off his campaign, in which he described plans to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and labeled some Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. Surveys of international students conducted during the presidential campaign suggested that many would be less interested in coming to the U.S. if Trump were to become president. For example, a survey of 40,000 students from 118 countries conducted by the international student recruiting companies FPP EDU Media and Intead found that 60 percent said they’d be less inclined to come to the U.S. if Trump were to win, compared with just 3.8 percent who said they’d be less inclined if his opponent Hillary Clinton won.
Among respondents from Mexico, the proportion who said they would be less inclined to study in the U.S. if Trump were to win the presidency was, at 79.8 percent, even higher.
The Seattle-based marketing company Study in the USA also surveyed 1,000 prospective international students on the election. Of 975 responses, 639 said they’d be more likely to study in the U.S. if Clinton were to win, while just 91 said they’d be more likely to come if Trump were elected. “Due to Donald Trump’s very explicit racist remarks, I would not feel very comfortable studying in the USA,” one respondent said.
One student from Hong Kong enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College, in Boston, shared a video on Facebook that called Trump a racist, sexist, and narcissist. “Oh my goodness, such a nightmare. Can I still survive in the U.S. … As an Asian international student,” Kalok Kwok posted.
“I feel like I am losing a chance to immigrate to the USA,” Kwok said in an interview. “I think Trump will deny people who are interested to immigrate in the U.S. to protect U.S. citizens. … It might work in the short run, but in the long run U.S. citizens might lose competitiveness.”
Still, others offered a more optimistic message. It’s worth noting that Trump himself once posted on Twitter about the benefit of retaining international students in the U.S., writing in an August 2015 tweet, “When foreigners attend our great colleges and want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country.”
“I think America is going to continue to welcome international students, international students are going to continue to want to come here, we will continue to want to send American students abroad as students and cultural ambassadors. I think that international educational exchange is part of the fabric of many societies, including ours,” said Allan E. Goodman, the president and CEO of the Institute for International Education.
“In terms of how this will impact mobility of students, how this will impact the work of international education in the short and long run, it’s too early to tell because it is my hope that between the campaign rhetoric and what it actually takes to govern, that between those two we will get to what I would call a more reasonable place. It is my deep hope,” said Fanta Aw, the president of NAFSA: Association of International Educators and assistant vice president of campus life at American University.
Aw continued, “At the end of the day, there will have to be a way to figure out how does this country come together and how does it choose to engage the world and be part of the world, and I would go so far as to say there’s some practical reasons for why this is essential. Because our economy is tied to the world economy. We don’t live on an island unto ourselves.”
At the same time, Aw said, she understood why some international students were feeling nervous on Wednesday.
“For the world to see with this election that issues of race were very much on the table, that issues of gender were very much on the table, that issues of class were very much on the table, that issues of citizenship were on the table, and who people choose to worship, that is a lot to digest,” she said.
“For our students, depending on what part of the country they’re in, I can understand that there’s some real fear and trepidation because they’re trying to make meaning of what does the vote stand for?” Aw said. “It is understandable that for those students and for their families they would have a lot of questions this morning, and in the days and months ahead we will be unpacking what did happen.”