International Students and Hostage Taking

by Gerardo L. Blanco

One of my intellectual projects during the techno-dystopian summer of 2020 involves exploring the concept of hostage taking, conceptualized as a social institution, and its potential applications for understanding higher education in the larger context of contemporary geopolitics. When I began that project, I didn’t know that reality would soon catch up to my theorization: At the end of June, the US government issued restrictions limiting H-1B and J -1 visas. In early July, restrictions were imposed on international students at U.S. institutions that selected online-only as their mode of instruction.

My original question about hostages was motivated by my work with Chinese international students in the U.S., before the COVID-19 outbreak. Rather than the common notion of hostage taking as—exclusively—a violent activity, I was thinking about the medieval social institution of hostage exchange, which served us away to maintain peace between two hostile powers. Accordingly, hostages establish a social relation distinct from, but connected to, fosterage and godparenting. The basic idea is that despite hostile rhetoric and the ongoing trade war, China and the U.S. won’t attack each other if vast numbers of their citizens are in the other country. While this may seem a morbid concept to explore, I remain interested in the ethical obligations of a hostage-taking power toward its hostages, which even for a violent institution as hostage-taking have to be higher than the current rules the U.S. government is living by. The growing antagonism between China and the United States, the large proportion of international students from China on my campus, and the mistreatment they are often subject to, converged as the main ideas for the project.

That was a few months ago, and now, over the course of two weeks, the Trump administration has taken steps to limit H-1B and some J-1 visas, that I have argued elsewhere are fundamental for the operation of U.S. colleges and universities. The recent guidance preventing international students to enroll in safer online courses and remain in the United States has resulted in protest and voices speaking up for international students. Recent perspectives have equated international students to hostages, but in the traditional sense, usually connected to late-20th and early-21st Century and terrorism that is not State-sponsored. In contrast, the United States, as the sole hegemonic power in contemporary geopolitics, has developed sophisticated tools for technologic violence. These include drone warfare and cyber war. So, it stands to reason that the U.S. has also developed sophisticated mechanisms for the recruitment and management of hostages that mask its violence.


A few months ago, before the COVID- 19 pandemic took place, a respected colleague shared with me his concerns that the calls to abolish ICE among prominent politicians and intellectuals would result in the elect reelection of Donald Trump. At that time, these calls reflected the outrage about the family separation program within ICE detention facilities and a sting operation aimed at luring international students misusing their visas at a fake university. I am sympathetic to that argument, however, the recent decisions by the White House and by ICE amount, in my analysis, to a direct assault on higher education and on internationalization. While the members of this Critical Internationalization Studies Network seek to re-imagine internationalization and higher education more broadly, the US government has taken actions that can seriously destabilize the system. Of course, their motivations are very different than ours.

If forced to choose between dismantling the higher education system or ICE, I would certainly choose ICE. The recent actions against international students have made me reflect about the ways in which I have taken for granted institutionalized violence as part of the management of international students and scholars in the US. The healthy amount of disagreement expressed toward the government’s measures made me aware of how normalized compliance with ICE and SEVP has become. And yet, it is important to remember that these institutions began in the context of the “War on Terror” that George W. Bush identified as his legacy during the last months of his declining presidency. What is evident is that the management of international students and scholars does not naturally belong in the Department of Homeland Security, that that the U.S. structure is an outlier—when placed in a comparative context, and that there has never been a time when SEVIS, SEVP, or ICE have not been Instruments of techno- institutionalized terror, legitimized by power asymmetry.

Re-imagining resistance

 I am skeptical that the current calls to abolish ICE will succeed. That is fine, because I am generally skeptical about direct forms of resistance. My two main theoretical orientations, Postcolonial Theory and Poststructuralism, seem to converge here. Postcolonial Theory teaches us about passive, indirect resistance and about the radicality of survival. Poststructuralism warns us against a system that incorporates everything, even resistance, in a process of total annexation. Jean Baudrillard argued that we are witnessing World War IV. The first world wars are the ones we already know; the third world war was the Cold War, and the fourth is the war that the hegemonic system wages against itself. The U.S. government actions of the last 2 weeks, while it claims wanting to have a rapid post-COVID recovery, while also dealing two significant blows to the mechanisms that could make that recovery possible, if not easy, make Baudrillard’s argument evermore compelling.

It is doubtful that a successful social movement will result in abolishing ICE. However, by merely thinking this alternative, the idea (unthinkable before) already succeeded. I don’t believe that, despite the sheer incompetence displayed in recent weeks (read years), the federal government will self-destruct or will succeed at cutting off the lifeline that international students represent for U.S. universities. I don’t hope for either of these outcomes, either. Where I find comfort is in the inspiring mobilization of our petty bureaucracies, arcane jargon, and time-tested ways to circumvent and undermine the agendas of those who hold more power than we do, without ruffling too many feathers. I am inspired by the faculty members willing to put themselves at risk to offer independent study courses so that international students on their campus can register for a face-to-face course in the fall and remain in SEVP compliance. To a lesser extent, I am heartened by my colleagues who have decided to use the protections of tenure and citizenship in, arguably, an open society to speak up for students. Above all, I am inspired by international students (as I was from 2005 to 2013) who despite the current uncertainty go on with their research and other activities. I see you; you inspire me.

 Gerardo L. Blanco is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development and Associate Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

You can watch his 2019 presentation to the Critical Internationalization Studies Network, “Can We Critically Approach Work That Has Been Framed Uncritically? Doing Internationalization as Collective Account-Giving”, as well as his recent presentation with Amy Scott Metcalfe, “Internationalization as Fatal Strategy.”

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