On August 31, graduate students at Washington University in St. Louis received an email from the university’s administration that left many visa-holding students fearful of deportation. The email—written to address the ongoing graduate student union campaign at WashU—misleadingly stated that graduate students with visas could be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported for going on strike.
In light of President Trump’s September 5 announcement to terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the intimidation tactics used by WashU against its own students puts the large research university on a growing list of institutions that are normalizing attacks on immigrant communities.
The statement sent out by WashU Provost Holden Thorp, and posted online, reads: “if the union were to engage in a strike, F-1 visa students engaged in graduate teaching and research experiences could be legally prohibited from continuing to ‘work’ ... Under such circumstances, F-1 visa students could be subject to deportation whether they continued to ‘work’ or not.”
Under U.S. immigration law, international students can be subject to deportation for losing their student status. But the university omits the fact that visa-holders in the United States hold the same rights as all employees under the National Labor Relations Act, and are allowed to strike for better working conditions.
Oguz Alyanak, a Turkish citizen and anthropology PhD candidate at WashU, says that the provost’s statement has been “effective” in dissuading students from supporting the graduate student union at WashU, despite the widespread sentiment that a union could bring benefits such as job security, dental care and childcare for graduate student parents.
“The fear of being deported being used against you, that’s very awful … and I can’t come to terms with having to be on a campus where I need to be subject to those kinds of policies or that kind of discourse,” says Alyanak. “The kind of policies that you’ve been seeing under the Trump administration are … on our college campus.”
Following Trump’s announcement to repeal DACA, WashU's chancellor Mark Wrighton sent an email to the student body in defense of its immigrant students. In sharp contrast to the earlier statement targeting immigrant-student workers, Wrighton's emails reads: “every Washington University student—regardless of immigration status, race, ethnicity, nationality or any other identity—deserves the same opportunity for success.”
“They’re sending out public emails of support for DACA immigrants, publicly rebuking the Trump administration for its stance on immigration, [but at the same time] they’re instilling fear in international students in order to get what they want,” says Lucky Santino, a PhD candidate in chemistry and one of the leaders of the graduate student unionization effort at WashU.
WashU is part of a growing movement of graduate students workers at private universities, including Yale, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago, that have filed for union elections, after an August 2016 NLRB ruling that graduate students may unionize and collectively bargain.
On September 15, WashU filed for a union election, following a rally where more than 100 students and faculty turned out to protest the university’s statements about visa-holding workers and in support of the union, but they have yet to set a date for the vote.
Bret Gustafson, a WashU anthropology professor who gave a speech at a rally on WashU’s campus, says that the university’s stance on unionization is an effect of the corporatization of WashU and higher education more generally, in recent years.
“This university like most universities has turned into a corporation…they have some really high-paid lawyers that fight unions,” says Gustafson, who has received emails from his department forbidding faculty from inquiring into students’ “union sympathies.” “When I read [the provost’s statement], and it said they were threatening foreign students with deportation, I couldn’t believe it, but in fact, if you look at the document, that is what they are doing.”