Marks: A wide immigrant net equals collateral damage

President Trump's immigration policies won't just affect refugees and illegal immigrants, but foreign students and all the Americans who benefit from their presence.

A student protester holds a sign with the same message that other immigrant students are trying to get across. /

KALAMAZOO, Mich., February 28, 2017 — “Immigrant” is a broad term; it includes refugees, undocumented aliens, and international students.

International students, including those from the seven countries from which immigrants were banned under President Trump’s executive order on immigration, are often highly skilled, highly motivated, and extremely bright students. They have worked hard to learn English so that they can earn undergraduate and graduate degrees from American universities.

Some build lives and businesses in the United States, but most hope to take their newfound knowledge home to develop or rebuild their home countries.

International students are becoming anxious about the future, even those not from the seven countries named in Trump’s executive order.

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The problem is uncertainty. International students are uncertain about new executive orders that might be issued. They face uncertainty about whether they will be allowed to stay, or whether they will be able to return to the U.S. if they have to leave for any reason. Many have come here with their wives and children, and they may worry that their wives will be harassed for wearing a hijab, or that their children will be bullied in their schools.

They or their family members might be suddenly ordered out of the country, leaving them unable to finish their degrees. They worry that a family member back home might fall ill, forcing them to choose between returning home or finishing their degree.

University officials are worried too. They worry about future enrollments, and whether international students will still decide to study in the United States. Instructors worry about declining enrollments and whether they will be able to keep their jobs.

Retailers, hoteliers, and landlords wonder whether the money that international students and their families pump into the U.S economy every year—approximately $32.8 billion in 2015-2016, according to the Association of International Educators—will continue, or whether these students will decide to study elsewhere.

Everyone who cares about the intellectual capital foreign students bring to enrich our schools and economy is left to wonder about the wisdom of a travel ban so broad that it punishes students and kills jobs.

Foreign students are not refugees or illegal immigrants. They are legal immigrants with F-1 (student) visas, issued by the U.S. government.

The vetting is already extreme; it can take up to two years for some students to get an F-1 visa because of all the background checks and interviews.

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And those interviews are tough. Students have at most five minutes to display their English ability, explain their future goals and family finances, and speak in a voice that sounds both natural and unrehearsed. Many visas are denied because potential students do poorly in the interview.

The students who do make it to U.S. universities have already succeeded. Not only have they received a visa, they have gained admission to an undergraduate or graduate program where the language of instruction is not their native language.

How many of us can claim an achievement like that?

And these students will take many things home with them. They are often business, science or engineering majors for a reason: They will take home the skills and knowledge they have learned to help develop their own countries.

A side benefit for the U.S. is that they may share with their friends and family good memories of their time in the U.S. They will describe what Americans are really like, as opposed to the stereotypes in local or government-sponsored media, acting as lay-ambassadors for the U.S.

They will help both their country and their country’s relations with the U.S. as a result of their time spent in our universities. Isn’t that what we all want?

Tom Marks is a U.S. citizen who has worked in international education since 1985, and is the Director of the Center for English and Culture for International Students at Western Michigan University.

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