Pennsylvania State University graduate students rallied on the steps of Old Main last week to celebrate the opening of their union election, but it's been a difficult road leading up to this point.
In the last year, they've had to fend off antiunion attacks — often from their own school.
There was the case in front of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, where, over seven days of hearings, Penn State officials fought to prove that graduate students — research and teaching assistants — should be considered students, not workers. There was the doctoral student who tried to stop the election with the backing of an organization that has taken up numerous antiunion lawsuits in Pennsylvania.
Then, in what graduate student union supporters said was among the most egregious moves by the administration, came the messages regarding international students and their legal standing in the United States.
"If a union called a strike of graduate student assistants, it is possible that international student visas could be affected," the school wrote on an FAQ site about the union campaign, adding a quote from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): "If the student has stopped taking courses or stopped performing research and that is what is required for their program, the student's record should be terminated immediately and they will have to leave the U.S. as soon as possible."
In other words: International students, beware. Voting for the union could mean signing away your right to stay in the U.S.
It's a particularly sensitive subject at a time when immigrants have felt increasingly threatened by the Trump administration's policies and rhetoric. Colleges have been feeling what they describe as the Trump effect — the U.S. is no longer as appealing to international students as it once was. To quote ICE is to invoke the fear that the agency instills in immigrants, especially in Pennsylvania, where its regional field office arrests more undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions than any other office in the country. Jerome Clarke, a philosophy doctoral student and copresident of the union-organizing Coalition of Graduate Employees, accused his school of "channeling some really dark energy" with its comments and said he's already heard that students are voting against the union because they're scared.
International students make up one-third of all graduate students at Penn State.
"That they were especially threatening international students is unsurprising," said rural-sociology doctoral student Johann Strube, who is from Germany, "because we are a particularly vulnerable group."
University officials have a lot of power in this fight, said Strube, who supports the union. They can send official emails to students, and many of those students, especially those who are foreign-born and struggle with English, will take them at their word.
Could international students lose their visas if they were part of a union that went on strike?
It's possible, said Jenkintown-based immigration lawyer Karen Pollins. In order to maintain an F-1 student visa, the student has to be enrolled in a full course of study, the definition of which varies from student to student (it may involve teaching or other kinds of work) and something the university would determine. If the university decided that a student wasn't fulfilling a full courseload, the school would be legally obligated to report that to the government.
However, it could be possible for a union to negotiate a clause that protects international student status should they go on strike.
At the University of Illinois, where graduate students went on strike in February, no students lost their visas or were deported for participating, said Ashli Anda, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois. She added that, as per a 2011 memorandum, ICE agreed not to make arrests at a workplace where there is an ongoing labor dispute.
ICE officials said they did not have statistics on foreign students being arrested and deported because of their participation in a strike but said that "nonimmigrant students must maintain their nonimmigrant status while in the United States and if they fail to do so they are required to leave the country or face being placed in removal proceedings."
In a statement, Penn State officials said: "International graduate students are a vital and important part of Penn State's graduate student community. … Penn State has consistently and vigorously defended the interests of international students, and will continue to do so."
Penn State isn't the only university that used this tactic amid a union drive: School administrations at Northwestern, Princeton, and Washington University in St. Louis have all suggested that international students would be at risk if they joined a union.
In the last few years, more graduate students have been fighting to unionize, with the hope of better wages, health care, and a seat at the bargaining table, though in the last few months, organizers at private universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, have put efforts on hold, because they anticipate that a Republican majority at the National Labor Relations Board will overturn the decision that allowed them to organize in the first place. Because Penn State is not a private university, that decision would not apply to its students.
The voting period closes next week and votes will be counted April 24.
Strube called Penn State's behavior "deeply disappointing" — and a very good reason why students need a union.
“It makes you feel devalued,” he said.