In the decades after the collapse of modern empires and the emergence of several newly-independent States, like India, political leaders and development theorists made popular an idea that came to be called brain drain theory. The idea was simply that the country's 'brightest', when given opportunities to study abroad, would leave the country taking not just their ideas and innovations with them but also the social capital or the networks that they shaped.
Instead of their home countries benefiting from their talents, societies elsewhere, and, in particular, American or Western European universities, institutions and companies, would gain from the incredible perspectives that people from the developing world had to offer. Ironically enough, the theory was made popular by theorists who had left their home countries for more promising shores themselves.
Brain drain came to be severely critiqued in the 1990s, with two significant sets of arguments among others: First, investment in varied forms of quality education and attempts to equalise accessibility to it had led to an acknowledgment that the 'brightest' were not limited to those who had opportunities to study or work abroad. Second, with the militant globalisation of the 1990s and the resulting mobility of labour, capital, markets, research, and communications across national borders, 'the brains' no longer remained confined to one part of the world but could easily travel, endow, and embed themselves in other parts of the world, especially places in 'the global south'.
Today, both these forms of critique and the possibilities they sought to establish, are under attack. Its most immediate manifestation in centres that have benefited from the ideas and labour, and even investments, of diverse people from the rest of the world, are the new regulations by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for international students. The ICE announced this week that all international students on F-1 and M-1 visas attending universities with courses registered entirely online may not remain in the United States. This announcement effectively leaves Undergraduate, Masters, and PhD international students in the US, most of them predominantly on the F-1 visa, with the following legally plausible options: Either they have to pack up and leave the country at the end of August if all their courses are online, or they could transfer to a programme or university that offers at least one in-person class which involves face-to-face interaction with a faculty member.
President Donald Trump followed the ICE announcement, as he is usually prone to do, with a tweet which declared in capital letters:
SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!
" Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2020
The president's response to the new regulations made it clear that foreign students have become pawns in the US federal government's strategic move to force American universities to open its campuses amid a global pandemic that has devastated the US far more than any other country in the world. After all, schools in other affluent parts of the world have opened now that many of these countries " especially those in East Asia and Europe have flattened the dreaded COVID-19 curve while the US struggles to encourage, or even defend, basic social distancing norms.
However, all evidence indicates that opening universities will risk not just the lives of international students, but American students, faculty, and other employees of universities as well. Even as several universities file lawsuits against and seek a stay order on ICE's new regulations, the motivations of this arbitrary power play by the ICE and the POTUS and embedded in, and will have a long-lasting impact on the larger processes that have shaped the sustenance of the United States as a terminus for the untethered exchange of ideas, creativity, and innovation of the world's 'brightest'.
Without a public health system in place, the people of the United States have had to witness its insurance-driven healthcare system struggle to cope with the high caseload of coronavirus patients. The health crisis is only one of the multiple crises that American society, economy, and politics are witnessing: A vast number of people have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Social distancing procedures have neither taken root in several American states nor have they been endorsed by various state administrations. Increasing economic inequality seems to be a growing inevitability in the visible future. The large and widespread protests following the murder of George Floyd have forced the country's White majority to severely rethink the various ways in which America's foundational institutions, including its privatised prisons, inherently reproduce a racist and incarceral everyday life for many of its minorities.
Despite this being an election year, the 'core' liberal ideas of American constitutional democracy " upholding the dignity of each individual, defending the associative nature of politics, and checking the arbitrary power of the state " have lost the discursive and mobilisational power they once commanded. Amidst the humiliating failure of the American system to handle these multiple crises, ICE's move appears to be one that forces American schools to open their campuses as an inflated show of strength and recovery.
There is little doubt today that American politics is rapidly hurtling towards curbing not just what Trump calls illegal immigration but different kinds of legal immigration as well. The transition from substantive calls to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and bans on those from certain Muslim-majority countries travelling to the States in the early years of the Trump presidency, to migrant detentions at the start of 2020, the blocks on flights to Europe and China from the States, the suspension of the entry of immigrants using H-1B and J-1 visas into the country, and the change in immigration rules demanding that all students on an F-1 visa must leave the country has only taken four years.
The once unquestionable American argument that private interest and investment in bringing innovation from around the world into the US as a sustainable foundation for any driving force towards building a larger and technologically advanced global market dominance is now screeching to a halt before the American State-drawn limits of a parochial, national border.
It is not just American democracy that is under stress. The governments of democracies like India, which had once been praised and touted for their embrace of constitutional democracy, free media, and global capital after the 1990s, have little to no response for the multiple existing crises that the pandemic has only managed to weakly underline in a highly policed and fear-filled public discourse. The continuous targeting of academic spaces in India, the arrest of multiple students on arbitrary grounds using extraordinary laws in the middle of a severe health crisis, the endorsement of this by the Indian mainstream media, and all of this following a violent and majoritarian reworking of Indian citizenship by the Central government has a deep significance for those of her citizens studying in the US and currently facing expulsion due to ICE regulations.
In the past 20 years or so, the mobility of students between India and the United States, hasn't been limited to an elite, or an upper middle class from big Indian metropolitans alone. The expansion in public education, enabled by the policies of the pre-Narendra Modi regime, that paid some attention to welfare state models of minimum basic social rights and accepted education as a universal right, created a large pool of first- or second-generation students who had high-quality undergraduate and Masters degrees.
While reservations were not properly implemented across educational institutions, its minimum execution in some institutions enabled Dalit students, and those belonging to other minorities and backward castes, to access national law schools, IITs and various other Central and state universities. It is the access to these quality institutions within India, and the rigorous training and relationships built in these, that enabled a large number of mobile Indian students one encounters elsewhere in the world today.
Contemporary American universities have large components of Indian students in different departments, and many of them come not from Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru alone, but also Guwahati, Darbhanga, Bhopal, Ahmedabad, Trichi, Panaji, Nagpur, Jodhpur, Rohtak, Mandi and Srinagar. Multiple highly skilled Indian-origin immigrants across the United States, and other affluent countries, were first trained in the public educational institutions that the Central or state governments built before moving to the United States for advanced degrees that gave them access to jobs anywhere in the world without necessarily 'draining' India of their interest, research or investment in her society, economy or politics.
The most obvious evidence of this has been the sheer financial, ideological and technological support that has been built and maintained across the Indian diaspora in the United States to sustain the BJP as a ruling party, and Modi as India's prime minister. But other flows of ideas, capital, labour, and research, that lie on a range of exchanges seemingly less insidious than the tightly-knit Hindutva networks also thrived because of the initial encouragement, networks, and circulatory power of educational institutions both in India and the United States. Many of these have returned to India to lead institutions, write/speak consistently in/to the media, invest in local businesses, and carry out innovative research within India.
Much of the research ranging from medical experiments to developmental studies to the humanities in India is carried out by scholars who divide their time between India and the United States, including many candidates on the F-1, J-1 or H-1B visas. Moving out of the national boundaries of a nation has not implied an escape or abandonment of the concerns of the nation in the last three decades.
The ICE regulations are not merely a blatant rejection of the overestimated privileges that international students paying for their education in America are often said to have. If implemented, they will imply the loss of thousands of scholarships, multiple collaborative projects, and little to no access to research funding, especially when all of these different and essential aspects to education and research are facing an extreme paucity within India today. Even if various stay orders are passed, the impact this will have on safe environments for education, research, and knowledge will endure.
With the repeated attacks on higher education and the exclusionary and incarceral policing of fixed national borders, both in India and the US, the varied promises and possibilities of having a visa to study in American universities which have access to almost every educational resource conceived of (including those who are marginalised or not considered as knowledge by all), of having the capacity to live elsewhere and learn from different political communities and the societies they have built or failed to, and of using higher education as a plank to secure one's place in the world and expand one's understanding of it is failing. Rebuilding it will not merely take a concerted effort from students, but will require polities as a whole to rethink the relevance of expansive knowledge and build an irreverence to confining borders.
The author is a political theorist and intellectual historian. She is a teaching fellow and doctoral candidate at Columbia University, New York. Views expressed are personal