Stanford University must speak out against xenophobia

June 19, 2020, 9:30 p.m.

The present moment lays bare American racism to those who have refused to see it. Working-class minorities are made disproportionately vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, while a hyper-militarized police force unjustly takes Black lives. Higher education now deals with another form of institutionalized discrimination: proposed policies from the Trump administration and the US Congress threaten to exclude international graduate students, particularly Chinese students, from this country’s universities. We intend to draw attention to this racist and xenophobic exclusion and call on Stanford University leadership to publicly oppose these proposed policies.

Recently, President Trump issued a presidential proclamation restricting graduate students from the People’s Republic of China, preventing the issue of new visas and revoking existing visas on the basis of affiliation with the Chinese military. As it is frequently difficult to discern the details of such affiliation for any student, the policy represents a blunt and indiscriminate instrument for excluding Chinese international students. Although 3,000 to 5,000 graduate students are directly linked with the Chinese military, the policy will bar any student or researcher who has studied in a military-affiliated Chinese university, drastically increasing the number of students who would be excluded, including those whose work has nothing to do with military applications. 

Meanwhile, through the SECURE CAMPUS Act, legislators have taken even more aggressive steps, attempting to prevent student visas from being issued to graduate students from the People’s Republic of China in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has issued a statement opposing the legislation but many other scientific societies have remained silent. 

Finally, the general entry of international students is threatened by the Trump administration’s potential termination of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows international non-STEM students with student visas to work in the United States for one year, or three years for STEM students. OPT, along with the H-1B work visa program, represents a pipeline for immigration into the country. With 220,000 workers enrolled in OPT in 2018-19 ⁠— nearly three times the number of immigrants who annually obtain a H-1B visa ⁠—  its shutdown would spell disaster for numerous graduate students seeking to find work in the United States.

The United States has a long history of targeting Chinese immigrant workers for exclusion, as previously codified in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. These proposed policies represent another step in testing the extent to which the federal government can exclude Chinese people from this country, particularly targeting international students. Even if these proposals are never enacted, they will amplify racist animus against immigrants if left unchallenged.  The representation of the Chinese ⁠—  and of Asians more broadly ⁠—  as a treacherous yellow peril may have become more nuanced and sophisticated into the 21st century, but it has not gone away.

Racist distrust of Chinese scholars in the United States, whether they are Chinese- or American-national, is a worrying pattern of the past several years. The National Institutes of Health and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have pushed Chinese scholars out of cancer research. FBI Director Chris Wray has made reckless claims that Chinese graduate students and professors pose a risk to national security. Under pressure from American legislators who alleged foreign influence, San Francisco State University and other universities have closed their Chinese language programs. And in 2015, Temple University physicist Xiaoxing Xi was wrongfully arrested by FBI agents under accusations of espionage that were later dropped. Repeatedly, Chinese scholars are perceived unfairly as perils. 

These manifestations of systemic xenophobia are connected with the anti-Asian racism elevated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Asians are harassed and assaulted, from verbal insults to being attacked with acid. Racism during the pandemic is amplified by politicians and government officials, from Trump’s naming COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” to a scaremongering Biden campaign advertisement. These events make clear that neither a visa, nor citizenship status, nor the image of the well-behaved “model minority” guarantee protection from racism. Moreover, cultural differences and language barriers deepen the anxiety and precarity that many Chinese international graduate students experience. Although the marginalization of Asian and Asian American communities is often not identical to the marginalization experienced by other communities of color, anti-Asian xenophobia is but one arm of a systemic racism whose rhetoric and violence mutably adapt to all contexts.  

Xenophobia has dire consequences for American higher education. Chinese international graduate students represent over 350,000 graduate students in American higher education, and make up 13% of doctorate earners in STEM and a substantial part of the Stanford community. Racist policies damage the work of scientific communities, as today’s research increasingly requires collaboration across borders. Graduate students have already spoken out against this xenophobia. Over 3,000 people nationally have joined this call by signing a petition originating at Stanford. 

It is time for Stanford University administration to follow suit and condemn these racist, scaremongering policies. The University is well-positioned to advocate on behalf of international students, being a leader in higher education with a direct line of communication to the White House. Stanford’s relationship to Chinese labor is also unique among American universities: It has become one of the most prestigious universities in the world, through wealth gained by Leland Stanford Sr. through the exploitation of poor Chinese railroad workers who were treated less favorably than white workers and excluded from American citizenship. Just as the University administration has previously advocated to the U.S. Presidency for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), it has a moral obligation to publicly advocate for Chinese international and Chinese-diasporic students targeted by xenophobia. 

David Shuang Song, Ph.D. candidate, Graduate School of Education
Mallory Harris, Ph.D. student, Department of Biology
Suzanne Xianran Ou, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Biology
Sandra Schachat, Ph.D. candidate, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, 

This op-ed was written with the input of a Chinese-national student at Stanford University. 

Contact David Shuang Song at dssong09 ‘at’  ‘at’ stanford.ed, Mallory Harris at mharris9 ‘at’, Suzanne Xianran Ou at  osuzanne ‘at’ stanford.ed and Sandra Schachat ‘at’ [email protected] 

A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Trump administration’s potential termination of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, allows international non-STEM students with student visas to work in the United States for one year, or three years for STEM students. In fact, the program allows international non-STEM students to work for one year, or three years for STEM students. The Daily regrets this error.

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