Opinion: Stanford must reform Bechtel to support international and undocumented students

Aug. 21, 2020, 5:04 p.m.

According to the Immigration Policy Tracking Project, the Trump administration has issued an immigration policy change almost every business day it has been in power. While many of these changes have been minor, others have been devastating. In 2017, President Trump issued a travel ban barring people from seven countries — mostly majority-Muslim — countries from entering the United States. Following the ban, students have been afraid to return home to visit their families, lest they lose their visas. Many have been forcibly separated from their loved ones for years. Since 2017, the administration has also attempted to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants temporary legal status to around half a million undocumented university students. And just a few weeks ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it would strip international students — that is, 34% of graduate students and 11% of undergraduate students at Stanford — of their U.S. visas if their coursework were fully online.*

The risks of being an international or undocumented student at Stanford have changed drastically over the years. Bechtel International Center, Stanford’s office for international student affairs, is tasked with a simple mandate. It is a hub for “international educational exchange,” creating a “welcoming and supportive environment” to aid international students’ transition into life in the United States. But this mandate simply does not comport with reality anymore. A center that merely makes students feel “at home” is inadequate when that “home” is committed to kicking us out, by threat or by force. What we really need is a center that can respond to the exigencies of the moment.

Recent immigration policy changes have exposed Bechtel’s structural limitations. Now, more than ever, Stanford needs to empower Bechtel to support its noncitizen students and prepare for future immigration changes. We propose four areas of reform.

First, Bechtel should take a more proactive stance in providing students relevant information in a timely manner. ICE first announced its Rule on international students ( “the Rule”), forcing students to leave the country if their coursework were to be entirely online, on July 6. It took Bechtel two days to inform students of the Rule. Bechtel did not provide any substantive information about the Rule — no updates on the University’s response, implications for students or mental health resources — until July 14, nine days after ICE first announced the Rule. Ultimately, Bechtel’s response was too late: ICE rescinded the Rule mere hours later. Throughout nine grueling days of uncertainty, international students had no idea where to turn for information. During this period, not once did Bechtel reach out to students for feedback or input, nor did Bechtel inform students when Stanford filed suit against the Rule on July 13. And Bechtel never alerted students when ICE most recently modified the Rule on July 24. To date, Bechtel has not released a statement outright condemning the Rule. 

Similarly, on July 28, the Department of Homeland Security announced new restrictions on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. These restrictions are despite the Supreme Court ruling that the administration’s attempts to end DACA were unlawful. While President Tessier-Lavigne eventually wrote about ICE’s Rule, neither the University nor Bechtel have released a statement even acknowledging this change.

In general, Bechtel’s role regarding undocumented students must be clarified. The “Undocumented at Stanford” website informs students that Bechtel can help connect undocumented students to legal advice, providing a contact email address — but no similar information appears anywhere on Bechtel’s website.

We understand that immigration changes are complex, and that Stanford’s response to these changes requires multi-level coordination between Bechtel and the University administration, including its Office of Government Affairs. But we are not asking for Bechtel to give us immediate advice when crises occur. Rather, we are asking Bechtel, the entity responsible for noncitizen students’ welfare, to pass along publicly available information in a timely manner. This should be in a digestible form, such as an FAQ that describes changes to immigration policies, Stanford’s response and relevant legal developments. Stanford should also regularly update its webpages and streamline the separate “Immigration Issues and Resources” and “Undocumented at Stanford” sites with Bechtel’s. Lastly, Bechtel should work closely with Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE), Vaden Health Center and the respective deans to coordinate information sharing.

Second, Stanford should establish a center (“the Center”) whose sole mandate is to advocate for international and undocumented students on both immigration challenges and University-related issues. The Center would have full-time administrative staff, just like other community centers (such as the Black Community Services Center, Markaz Resource Center and the Women’s Community Center), who are responsible for voicing international student needs and concerns to the University. The Center could begin with organizing a forum to share issues facing different communities within the international student body, needs that the University can address directly through Bechtel, as well as gaps where the Center can step in to advocate for students. 

In an ongoing survey of the needs of international students conducted by the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), many respondents have indicated that they found Bechtel’s offerings to be inadequate, especially with regard to the special tax situation for international students. The Center could fill this need as well, by also retaining an accountant familiar with these particularities.

Some might argue that the Center is duplicative with Bechtel. But recent events and Bechtel’s relationship to ICE have made clear that Bechtel only exists to ensure compliance with government regulations and does not see itself as an advocate for international students. And although the Center could be administered through Bechtel, it would ideally be an independent entity. As the main entity responsible for providing ICE with student enrollment data through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), Bechtel has serious conflicts of interest. Students who are directly targeted by ICE should not be forced to seek help from an entity that reports to ICE. We need an advocate and resource to truly support us. Further, Bechtel currently does not have the bandwidth or legal expertise to effectively advocate for students in the event of immigration challenges. The Center would step in to fill this gap.

Third, Stanford should either hire or designate a full-time attorney to advise Bechtel and international students on any immigration changes. This attorney should be staffed under the Center previously mentioned. This is important not only to ensure Bechtel is nimble, but also to resolve any conflict-of-interest issues. Currently, Bechtel does not have any attorneys on staff. Pre-COVID, most of its information sessions on student visas and on international student taxes were conducted in partnership with external attorneys. This means that Bechtel is unable to respond quickly in emergency situations. For instance, Stanford is completely ill-equipped to provide our undocumented students any guidance on their status. Undocumented students are instructed to contact Stanford Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic for a “free consultation.” The purpose of the Clinic is not to provide legal advice to Stanford’s students; its three instructors work full time teaching and supervising. The lack of an internal counsel prevents Bechtel from responding to these challenges and serving the student body, while relying on the uncompensated labor of faculty and students. We would not be alone in pursuing this proposal. Our peer institutions, such as Harvard University, have hired full-time attorneys dedicated to advising students on immigration challenges.

Lastly, Stanford, with Bechtel’s coordination, should provide emergency grants to international and undocumented students. First, these grants should cover consultation with private attorneys. Since each student’s immigration status may be case-dependent, there will be circumstances where students need to consult private attorneys. Retaining private counsel can be prohibitively costly, but failure to do so may result in dire consequences for students, including deportation and even detention. The grants should also provide fee waivers for DACA and other costly legal applications. 

We know the policies of the Trump administration are an attack on undocumented and international students. But the convergence of this sustained attack and a global pandemic demand a more robust response from our University in defense of its community. The four reforms we’ve outlined here for Bechtel are just the first steps in the right direction. As a community that prides itself on its vibrant and diverse community, it is time that Stanford shows up for its international and undocumented students.

Help us elevate these reforms by voicing your support for them through ASSU’s international student survey here. The ASSU has also recently passed a resolution to support undocumented students.

And sign and circulate this petition, put together by the Students2Stay coalition and the Student Immigrant Empowerment Project at Stanford (SIEPS), to demand the administration stop ignoring the needs of undocumented students on campus. 

* The government has since modified the rule to only bar incoming international students from entering the United States if their coursework is entirely online. 

Contact Trillium Chang at trichang ‘at’ stanford.edu, Jay Bhasin at jbhasin ‘at’ stanford.edu, Andrew Fitzgerald at afitzger ‘at’ stanford.edu and Chiara Giovanni at chiarag ‘at’ stanford.edu

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