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For all the tragic political farce of the last three years, the Trump Administration’s creeping descent into authoritarianism — a thinly-veiled Muslim ban, literally caging children, and militarized federal agents dispersing protests in violation of a state’s express wishes, to name a few — is perhaps best understood through its gradual efforts to dislodge more and more immigrants, including those arriving legally, and to maximize the political payout of their mistreatment.
For students, these efforts hit close to home when the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued guidance barring international students from enrolling in universities offering only courses online.
To be clear: By designing an immigration order to punish both international students and educational institutions that have acted in accordance with the demands of public health, the Trump Administration has done nothing more than cudgel three of its favorite targets: immigrants, those who take seriously the threat of COVID-19, and institutions of higher learning. As University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote in an email about ICE’s new policy: “The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness.”
And, thankfully, he responded in kind. Two weeks ago, Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit in the District Court in Boston against DHS and ICE arguing that ICE’s rule was in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act because the agency had failed to take into account “important aspects of the problem.” The very fact that Harvard and the federal government find themselves in a serious war of words that escalated to a legal battle is a little surreal — a mark, perhaps, of strange and twisted times.
But that makes it all the more significant. Evidently, the universities were speaking to a strong need within their communities and beyond to fight back against the Trump administration — drawing support from dozens of peer institutions, cities, states, and student organizations, including through amicus briefs.
As Harvard students, it is deeply empowering and gratifying to see our institution stand up for our international peers and, in a broader sense, for democracy and civil society. Democracy requires public dissent when authoritarianism threatens. Protest, journalistic truth-seeking, and legal action are among the key safeguards of our democracy.
On Tuesday, just eight days after the initial announcement and before U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs could herself issue an injunction, those buttresses proved themselves strong. Minutes into a hearing, DHS and ICE withdrew their proposed guidelines. The government’s retreat shows the vital role academic institutions can play in marshalling those forces of democratic resistance.
But Harvard doesn’t always come to bat when students and society need it to. A quick look at recent emails from Bacow makes that all too clear. Whereas the wording of his email denouncing the Trump administration’s attack on international students was direct, unequivocal, and action-oriented, his response to the Black Lives Matter protests last month was the opposite. We called it “self-indulgent musing.” An op-ed contributor raised the stakes further. To Bacow, she charged, “Admit candidly the ways Harvard has failed during its long history to promote for everyone the American dream you believe in, and the ways you intend to use your position to fix that right now.”
Over the last two weeks, on behalf of international students, Bacow has done exactly that. But in some sense he has set himself up. The world knows now that Harvard, under Bacow’s leadership, is capable of genuine and decisive moral leadership. And as a result we will come to demand more of it and him — on behalf of immigrants and dreamers, Black and Indigenous students, victims of sexual violence, and the many others who will continue to face the malice of a corrupt administration.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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