An Open Letter to Our Students

We, the undersigned faculty of Northwestern, write to express our solidarity with our students —  all of them — at this precarious moment. We pledge to contest, as energetically and thoroughly as possible, the fact and effects of the recent United States government decision affecting international students. We understand this pledge as part of our responsibility as educators. We believe that our university has this same responsibility.

At the end of this letter, we list concrete actions that we will take or have taken, and urge you, our colleagues, and our administration to do the same.

On Monday, July 6, the Department of Homeland Security’s agency for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a new directive that threatens the visa status of many, if not most, of our international students. The new directive, which was issued with no prior warning, is plainly discriminatory and very likely illegal. It has now been challenged in court by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in District 1, and by the University of California, in District 9, who have sought a temporary restraining order to prevent implementation. Recently, University President Morton Schapiro and Interim Provost Kathleen Hagerty spoke out against the order and Northwestern is filing an amicus brief in support of the Harvard and MIT lawsuit. 

Earlier in the year and as a response to the COVID-19 crisis, ICE had sensibly granted an indefinite exemption on the rules that typically restrict international students’ ability to enroll in online courses, and most colleges and universities around the country, including Northwestern, had been proceeding on the assumption that those exemptions would continue into the fall and possibly beyond — in ICE’s own words, “for the duration of the emergency.” The virus and the emergency are still very much with us, but the exemptions have now suddenly been rescinded with only weeks to go before the start of the fall term. As the ICE memo makes clear, this means that if any college or university decides to offer mostly online instruction this fall for reasons of public health and safety — or transitions from in-person or hybrid modes to fully online instruction in response to worsening conditions — then that institution’s entire community of international students must either transfer to another school, or have their visas canceled and leave the country immediately, even those that are currently in the U.S. legally. Meanwhile, those who are currently abroad, and were expecting to remain there because their courses would be online, are now thrust into a dangerous limbo: either give up their visa status or return to the U.S., against all sound medical advice, simply in order to be in compliance.

We want to emphasize that this affects all of us — not just our international students — not only here at Northwestern but also at colleges and universities and their surrounding communities around the country. The sheer impossibility of thousands of students being able to quickly and safely transfer to a declining number of colleges and universities offering in-person instruction as the virus rages across the U.S. this fall beggars belief. Indeed, it calls into question the rationale for the order, which is nowhere stated in the ICE memo itself. Its purpose appears to be to force as many international students as possible to leave the country, or to force colleges and universities to remain open no matter the public health risk in order to shield their students from deportation. Thus, even though the new rules targeting international students seem clearly to stem from the Trump administration’s relentless and unrepentant xenophobia, they put all students and all Americans at risk. 

The ICE directive creates logistical problems of cascading complexity for university faculty, administration and staff, who are already spending their summers trying to figure out how to provide the best and safest education possible to our students come fall. There are also serious and legitimate questions regarding how it is to be surveilled and enforced — thus, again, posing a threat not only to the rights and liberties of our international students but all students, faculty staff, and members of the Northwestern community. 

The directive also has the potential to create a humanitarian disaster on a national or even global scale. Infected students who lose their visas and are forced to return to their home countries will of course bring the virus with them. And other countries know this. In fact, many countries that have gotten the virus under control have already banned travel from the U.S. until further notice, because our rates of infection remain too high. Thus, it is not entirely clear that all affected students would even be able to go home. What happens to them? The July 6 ICE memo does not specifically address this particular scenario, but it does refer ominously to “removal proceedings” being initiated against those students who don’t transfer schools or leave the country. We have no reason not to fear the worst about this administration’s intentions vis-a-vis those communities it chooses to demonize and marginalize.

Our international students are the best and the brightest from around the world, and they contribute immensely to the U.S. economy and to making our colleges and universities the best in the world.  We are lucky to be able to welcome them to our institutions and we all benefit from the research they do across the arts, humanities, sciences, education, law and more — not to mention public health, epidemiology, infectious diseases and the like. This policy thus actively sabotages vital ongoing research toward developing treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 and will only endanger all Americans further, and do great damage to our already drastically diminished standing in the world.

We add our voice in solidarity with our students to denounce this senseless, immoral, and potentially catastrophic order. We, the undersigned faculty of Northwestern University, condemn this order in the strongest possible terms. Its reckless disregard for the basic human rights of our international students threatens all of our rights, health, safety and well-being. We stand with you, our students, and remain committed to fighting for you. All of you. 

We therefore pledge:

  1. To urge Northwestern University administrators to actively pursue all legal avenues to challenge this order, including immediately filing its own lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Chicago, either on its own or as part of a consortium of Midwestern universities such as the Big Ten conference. With lawsuits now pending in the First and Ninth Circuits, the best way Northwestern can contribute to the legal challenge is by spearheading a lawsuit in the Seventh Circuit. A ruling in one federal district may not result in a nationwide stay to a federal policy; it is therefore imperative that the ICE directive face legal challenges across the country.
  2.  To lobby our congressional representatives. While we are cautiously optimistic that the Harvard/MIT and University of California lawsuits will be successful in blocking this egregious abuse of power, there are no guarantees, and any judicial victories may only be temporary. We therefore urge all concerned members of the Northwestern community — students, parents, alumni, faculty and staff — to contact your congressional representatives on this issue.
  3. To work tirelessly to repudiate the current U.S. administration’s explicit goal to dictate not only who we teach, but how we teach. These decisions are not the province of the federal government but of the faculty, including graduate students engaged in teaching.

 Now is not the time to be complacent or compliant. We must push back, for the sake of our students, our communities, and possibly even our democratic values and way of life. 

– Ji-Yeon Yuh, Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies

Rajeev Kinra, Associate Professor of History, Comparative Literature, International Studies, Asian Languages and Cultures, and Middle East and North African studies

Sean Allen Hanretta, Associate Professor of History

Jorge Coronado, Director of Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Professor of Spanish and Portuguese

Haydon Leslie Cherry, Assistant Professor of History

Lydia Barnett, Assistant Professor of History

The full list of signatories is available here. Those who still wish to sign the letter can do so here.

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