On August 31, in response to a mounting graduate-student unionization campaign, Washington University in St. Louis Provost Holden Thorp e-mailed students notifying them of a document that provided answers to frequently asked questions about unionization. The document paints unions as risky, irrational ventures that may not result in material gains for students. In its later pages, when the office takes up the question of international students’ involvement in a potential union, the FAQ’s tone turns sinister.
In answer to the question, “Could a strike potentially have an impact on my F-1 visa status?” the office becomes unequivocal: First, the office points out, if international students on an F-1 visa lose their student status, they would no longer be allowed to remain in the country and would have to leave immediately. “Furthermore,” the memo says, “universities are legally required to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement…if a student fails to maintain status.” Washington University, the memo effectively implies, would be legally bound to call ICE if international students went on strike.
While the university appeared to present a neutral account of the law, the response to the question is misleading. It’s true that F-1 visa holders who cease to be students are no longer permitted to be in the country, but it’s the university, not ICE, who decides when an international student is no longer a student. And for the university to revoke student status because of a strike or other action relating to unionization would be a clear violation of federal labor law.
“It’s one thing to inform students about unionization,” said Oguz Alyanak, an anthropology graduate student from Turkey who is involved with the union campaign. “It’s another to threaten them with deportation, to try to directly influence how they behave and how they act as students.” Alyanak, who has an F-1 visa, said that he saw the memo “spread fear over other international students,” and that until recently many of them had been too afraid to sign the petition for a union election.
WashU did not respond to The Nation‘s requests for comment. The administration has since updated the FAQ to clarify that “The University would not report a student’s change in status to the government unless it determined that…it must do so in order to be legally compliant.” But for Alyanak and others on the campaign, it’s hard to interpret the original memo as anything but an intimidation tactic. Nearly half of Washington University graduate students are international. It makes strategic sense, they say, for the university to drum up paranoia that a union would jeopardize student visas, thereby dividing the student body and tipping the election.