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.”

Open letter regarding adoption of the SDG framework for sustainability

by Sharon Stein, Vanessa Andreotti, and Cash Ahenakew

Recently, we wrote an open letter in response to our institution’s plan to adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as its primary framework for sustainability. We are sharing the letter here, in case it is useful for others facing similar institutional proposals. You can read the full letter here:

Excerpt here:

While we strongly support the university’s overall direction toward greater allocation of attention and resources to issues of sustainability and societal impact, we also urge caution about the uncritical adoption of the SDGs and advocate for the importance of ongoing critical and reflexive engagements with the complexities, paradoxes, and nuances of the SDGs and indeed all sustainability efforts. It is only in this way that we might ensure more socially and ecologically accountable responses to inequalities and climate change that keep in view both the inherent unsustainability of our current socio-economic system, as well as the systemic, historical, and ongoing colonial violence that underwrites that system.

If we do not preserve space for these engagements then even well-intentioned sustainability efforts will likely reproduce all-too-common colonial practices including unequal, paternalistic and extractive relationships between dominant and marginalized communities, simplistic solutions to complex problems, and ethnocentric imaginaries of justice, responsibility, and change.

We are concerned about the framing of this proposal, which emphasizes UBC’s global leadership in sustainability, and in particular its high placement in the Times Higher Education rankings based on the SDGs. While there is nothing wrong with celebrating UBC’s accomplishments, it becomes worrisome when these accomplishments are framed as the primary rationale for adopting a particular framework – as is indeed the case with the report, which names this as the primary benefit of this proposal. Too narrow of a focus on rankings, leadership, and UBC’s “brand and reputation” may compromise our ability to maintain a university environment in which critically-informed, rigorous scholarly deliberations about social and institutional sustainability efforts can occur. This should also include deliberate engagements with divergent perspectives. How can we ensure that, with the adoption of the SDG framework, alternative visions of sustainability, and of development, will be welcomed and actively encouraged at UBC?

Happier, healthier, wealthier?

By Sharon Stein and Vanessa Andreotti

The image that leads this post, which we describe as a kind of cartography, was inspired by an international education conference that we recently attended. When we first learned that the conference theme was entitled,  “Things we should be talking about in international education,” we were excited about possible openings for the kinds of reflexive, complex, and difficult conversations that we had been advocating for in the context of international education. The conference invitation noted about the international education sector:

“Our sector casts a long shadow and there may be other things we should be talking about: climate change and the culpability of our sector with its large carbon footprint; how globalization and its well-intentioned offspring internationalization have spawned the populism and nativism we are so offended by; fake news and the abhorrent lack of inculcation of critical thinking; how cosmopolitanism, inter-culturalization and indigenization have on the streets already overtaken internationalization as prima facie rationale for what we do; housing, mental health, campus suicides, student support and stewardship; culture, sexual assault and predatory behaviour; nature vs. nurture and male violence, the great majority of which is directed towards other males; regional growth and rural engagement; our addiction to unsustainable growth; reconciliation and residential schools; fentanyl, opioids and binge drinking; our complicity in the brain drain, the scourge of globalization; our culling of the top economic strata from the global South’s burgeoning middle classes (our emerging markets) to fill our classrooms, quotas and coffers; our wilful ignorance of the demography and elitism of study abroad, building programs and pedestals for the 1% to springboard their careers.”

While this text and the tone of the conference’s opening session gestured toward pressing ecological, economic, and political challenges, and the potential for international education to either mitigate or worsen these challenges, by midday the orientation of the conference turned sharply toward emphasizing unprecedented levels of wealth and well being, with the only perceived challenges being the possible interruption of the continued spread of this good news gospel and its accompanying material gifts. This tone continued with the keynote presentation of a prominent Canadian politician.

The tone of the keynote sounded eerily like the “Everything is awesome” song from the Lego movie, also echoing a refrain that has also been recently articulated by those seeking to reframe a seemingly endless stream of bad news and concerned assessments about the many challenges of the present.

Perhaps the most well known of these recent texts is Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which Bill Gates has declared as his “new favorite book of all time.” From the book publisher’s description, in this book, “Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing.”

While for some this text is a welcome intervention, it has also been met with a series of critical responses. With this image, we offer a pedagogical cartography of responses to the assertion that “everything is awesome”, through which we seek to invite active engagement with the blindspots of this assertion in ways that might supplement the more point by point accountings of its inaccuracies and oversights. To illustrate the possible uses of this cartography, in addition to the image itself, we offer a series of possible guiding questions for educational engagement around the issues it addresses.

The image shows a speaker on a podium making declarations about the overwhelmingly positive state of the world, while  voices below him raise various concerns that contest his depiction of reality. This is not meant to be a comprehensive representation of all possible responses, but rather a selection of replies that would likely be most legible, if perhaps disagreeable, to the speaker. Indeed, there are many more voices that would likely be unintelligible to the speaker. One way to engage people around this image in a way that extends and complexifies what is already represented, might be to ask:

  • For those who agree with the speaker, what does his perspective offer?
  • Which/whose dissenting voices are likely to be intelligible to the speaker, and why;
  • Which/whose dissenting voices are unintelligible, why, and what might they be saying;
  • What are the effects of this selective hearing?

Similarly, the list of disavowed issues that surround the speaker is hardly comprehensive, so it can be generative to ask which issues are missing, and which are the most important in their own context.

By creating an opportunity to ask where different positions come from, what they presume, where they lead, what they enable, what they foreclose, and which positions remain absent or invisibilized, social cartographies can challenge presumptive authorities without either seeking to replace them with a different authority or advocating an absolute relativity of positions. Further, by challenging learned desires for consensus, coherence, and quick resolution, cartographies can help build the stamina that is necessary to sit with the contradictions, complexity, uncertainty, and ambivalence that are involved in learning and unlearning ways of knowing, being, and relating with and in the world. Ultimately, rather than prescribe solutions, this supports people to make their own (better informed) decisions about how to respond to complex global challenges within their own situated contexts.

Download image here.