We, the executive board of the Teaching Assistants’ Association, refuse any compromise between supporting international students and the need for online-only instruction to protect us all from COVID-19. As recently stated by the illegally-appointed acting director of DHS, the proposed SEVP order mandating in-person learning for international students is intended to “encourage schools to reopen.” In other words, a branch of law enforcement described as “Trump’s main instrument for… trying to make America whiter again” is leveraging the lives of international students (through violent deportation) and workers (through unsafe employment conditions) to fuel a fantasy of economic reopening. These facts taken together reveal the proposed SEVP order as an illegitimate, racist act of state biowarfare. It is the University of Wisconsin’s job to stand up for both public health and the safety of international students by opposing the ICE guidance through tangible actions that keep our whole community safe.
This proposed order is designed to pit the Badger community’s concerns around the pandemic against the safety of international students. Chancellor Blank is falling in line with the Trump administration’s tactics by suggesting the “smart restart” reopening plan is a convenient way to protect international students from ICE. But the plan offers no reassurance or security for international students. What will happen when UW–Madison is forced to move online before Thanksgiving due to a major rise in cases? ICE has explicitly stated that the order will apply to mid-semester changes. Moreover, reopening the UW–Madison campus at all directly endangers the entire Madison community, including our international students. If the UW-Madison campus reopens, “there will definitely be more cases and more people will die.”
UW–Madison is simultaneously responsible for ensuring a safe semester during COVID-19 and for fighting the ICE order. Being forced to study in person to maintain visa status forces international students to accept a higher risk of fatality and chronic illness brought on by COVID-19. Bureaucratic workarounds fail to address the life-threatening harm of reopening. Moreover, emphasizing compliance, following procedure, and merely working to “interpret” policy are in violent complicity with state xenophobia. Under the SEVP order, information normally shared by ISS staff—the “Designated School Officials” in the order—will be used to initiate student deportations. UW–Madison must not collaborate with this two-pronged attack upon its students: the university must actively fight the proposed order.
The TAA demands that UW–Madison and the UW System maximize the safety of international students by doing (at least) the following:
- Refuse to comply with any requests for information about the status of international students.
- Provide all international students with free, easily accessible options for meeting the letter of the directive, and offer new options as circumstances or standards change. At this time, the UW system must mandate that departments offer one-credit courses (with full tuition remission and coded as “in-person”) for international students to take, which stipulate that face-to-face meetings are entirely optional.
- Sue the Trump administration to stop the order from going into effect (alongside institutions like Harvard, MIT, the University of California system, and the majority of other Big Ten institutions).
- Define and provide frequent, transparent updates on UW–Madison’s efforts “urging the federal government to stay or amend this plan through direct contact with Wisconsin’s Congressional Delegation and our leadership role in organizations such as the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Association of American Universities (AAU).”
- Declare UW System universities to be sanctuary campuses by forbidding any cooperation between staff and federal immigration enforcement.
In addition to the above, we call on the staff of ISS and other staff across the UW system to engage in slowdown workplace actions to buy the UW System time to fight this proposed order, and to seriously consider what other acts of disobedience they can take to protect our international students.
If UW–Madison and the UW System do not implement these measures before August 1, our membership will plan direct action to push the UW System to do the right thing by protecting our international friends, family, and colleagues from both ICE’s racist order and the devastating effects of COVID-19. A collective TAA effort to fight ICE on the UW–Madison campus and across Wisconsin is long overdue, and we are proud to be able to correct our mistakes and better support undocumented and international students. We will ready ourselves to take legal action; withhold labor, tuition, and fees; and prepare to physically and financially intervene to protect all those threatened by ICE from deportation. We will do anything necessary to protect students (both undergraduate and graduate), faculty, staff, and other workers in the UW System during COVID-19, and challenge you to organize with us to achieve this goal.
The university works because we do.