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  • Writer's pictureSantiago Castiello

America First?: Politics, Policymaking, and Neo-Nativism in US Higher Education

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

By Anonymous Author and Santiago Castiello-Gutiérrez

Picture of a red heart-shaped sticker with the message “Make America Love Again”. Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

Since Donald Trump’s candidacy for President of the United States, his rhetoric has been rooted in nationalism and neo-nativism, in an attempt to appeal to his base voters. The former is defined as putting one’s nation “above all others, placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations”; it could be exemplified by discourses around ‘America first’ and ‘America only’. While many would agree with the importance of establishing a nationalistic agenda that protects the nation’s interests, these past few years have made evident that the Trump administration’s policies are not trade and economic power, but rather they are policies to protect the illusion of an American national identity. This is where nativism — or the ”the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants” — comes into place. This new approach to nativism softens the discourse with presidential remarks calling to do immigration “the right way”, without an “open border”, closing loopholes that allow “frivolous claims’’ of asylum-seeking, while “protecting American wages and promoting American values”. However, contrary to the discourse, the policies that have been and continue to be implemented are simply wiping out immigration altogether, so far legal immigration has been reduced by almost half. This raises many questions: What kind of ‘America’ are this administration’s policies shaping? What does the ‘America’ that is being prioritized look like? Most importantly, who are the ‘Americans’ that the government is trying to prioritize, and at whose expense? Judging by the types of policies and regulations that the Trump administration has pushed — which has not been routed through regular democratic channels but through his executive privileges — it appears that the administration envisions a white, cisgender, Christian only America. To ‘make America great again’ — as we now understand — is an aspiration to return to a time where diversity did not threaten the privileges of those in power.

Over the course of the past four years, the Trump administration’s policy agenda has served to subjugate, disenfranchise, and exclude Muslims, Hispanics, DACA recipients, foreign workers, international students, refugees, and asylum seekers. The administration has aggressively misappropriated policy and politics to carve out a myopic image of what America should be, which detracts from what core American values really are. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (2019) notes in his book How to Be an Anti-Racist, that policies — written and unwritten laws rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people — can produce and sustain racial inequity between groups. When these policies are exacting in nature to discriminate against a person or groups of people, they are taking advantage of a lack of protective power for this population. For example, the attacks on immigrants and non-immigrant populations are nationalistic, exploitative, chaotic, and create systems of oppression that maintain normative white power and privilege.

The Trump administration has been taking its policy cues from the history books. Race neutral and colorblind higher education policy regimes can be traced back to early federal policies in the development of both the college and a higher education system that serve to create barriers for people of color and ensure racial inequality. For example, the policies enacted from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900’s — The Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862, the 1944 GI Bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — all served to diminish African Americans as second-class citizens and deprive them of upward mobility so that the dominant white population would not be threatened.

Many of these injustices parallel the experience of international students, who are in a precarious situation since they are not US citizens and cannot invoke the safety that citizenship provides. Take for example the past 3 months: On July 6, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) imposed guidelines preventing students from being able to complete their degrees if the pandemic worsened and higher education institutions were forced to move their courses online. After lawsuits and a huge public outcry, a revised and watered-down version of the policy prevented only new international students from studying in the U.S., since they were not included in ICE’s original March guidance that made exemptions for temporary remote instruction. Now, the Trump administration intends to put a four-year expiration date on international student visas — depending on their country of origin — which will force the majority of students to file for program extensions before they complete their degree. As a consequence, students will be at increased risk of having their visas rejected and being unexpectedly forced to leave the US, resulting in sunk costs to their education. Most importantly, the difference in the cap on the number of years is a distinction that would be based on the students’ country of origin. Therefore, and once again in the name of national security, this policy will serve to stratify and discriminate against those from certain nations based on the U.S. economic or political interests (e.g., many African nations, Iran, China, etc.).

Neo-nativism framings and policy agendas ignore the importance of international education and the reality that we live in a globalized world, and that higher education is important for the future of any country’s economic progress. Universities are, as their name suggests, a ‘universal’ community where — at least in theory — different ideas and ideologies can coexist. This openness and liberal stance clashes with the parochial and conservative contemporary view that the government has for the country. Therefore, by consistently attacking and punishing higher education institutions (Metcalfe, 2020), the President has politicized higher education as a whole, including its ideals, and the students and faculty who are part of those institutions. As such, policies around immigration and education should be analyzed in the larger scope of this administration’s agenda. For example, banning certain Chinese students is not due to espionage fears, but rather a geopolitical power struggle. Stopping the issuance of certain visas to high-skilled immigrants is less about the current unemployment crisis and more about keeping any type of ‘foreigner’ out of the US. Deporting international students is both a way to antagonize colleges and universities while turning the US into a hostile environment to dissuade any form of immigration. This strategy has been recently described by Streitwieser et al. (2020) as securitization/desecuritization where the government targets foreigners as a threat and educational institutions enter the policy arena to defend them while trying to shift and de-escalate the discourse.

It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique policy window for the Trump administration to push its immigration policy agendas, such as the non-immigrant visa ban and the international students ban, to appeal to base voters and rally their support ahead of the November election to protect the US job market, which might not otherwise have credence. The pandemic was used as a tool to create an illusion of opportunity to protect the US economy, when in fact it was a measure to remove non-immigrants from the country and strong-arm higher education institutions to reopen in the fall. As international scholars ourselves, we now understand that because of this atypical window of opportunity, we have become both hostages (Blanco, 2020) and pawns (Lee, 2020) in a larger racial and ideological battle. So, even after the higher education sector swiftly organized to fight this last attempt to expel international students, we need to be aware that the battle is far from over. For example, newly enrolled international students are not permitted to enter the US if their fall courses will be held completely online. The idea of turning the ‘American dream’ into an ‘American nightmare’ (Nguyen, 2020) for thousands of immigrants is proving to be more effective than any man-made wall. Besides, government policy is a function of crisis, meaning that governmental powers can dramatize important issues to their advantage during a crisis (e.g., a pandemic) so that self-serving policy values can be pushed higher on the policy agenda during propitious moments (Higgs, 1985). It then appears that they have the ‘golden’ solution to the problem in neat stages and steps. Therefore, we can expect in the short-term new waves of policies that create barriers for immigrants and non-immigrants in the U.S. and that sustain racial inequity (e.g., rejecting initial requests for new DACA filings.)

So, what can we do moving forward? If anything, the most recent attempt to deport international students taught us that when we rally together and exercise collective agency and power, these neo-nativistic policies can be repealed. The way higher education institutions fought the SEVP guidance, not just with statements but through lawsuits, is encouraging. However, at the heart of these actions must come an understanding of what exactly are we defending and what exactly are we fighting against. As we mentioned earlier, higher education institutions have easily fallen into the government’s trap of making every argument a political one. If we as students and scholars, and our institutions themselves keep defending the ideals of liberalism and globalization as arguments against these misused policies, then we are in for a long battle where dialogue is becoming impossible thanks to a widening political chasm. However, if there is an agreement on the fact that policies are being co-opted based on national security and economic prosperity, as opposed to being centered on racism and xenophobia, then the responses need to come with arguments in those realms as well. It is more important than ever for higher education to defend not an ideology or a way of life, but life itself.


Blanco, G. L. (2020). International students and hostage-taking. Critical Internationalization Studies Network.

Higgs, R. (1985). Crisis, bigger government, and ideological change: Two hypotheses on the ratchet phenomenon. Explorations in Economic History, 22(1), 1–28.

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. Penguin Random House LLC.

Lee, J. J. (2020, July 8). International students shouldn’t be political pawns. Inside Higher Education.

Metcalfe, A. S. (2020, July 10). ICE rules are an attack on immigration and higher education. Inside Higher Education.

Nguyen, S. (2020). When the American dream becomes the American nightmare.

Streitwieser, B., Duffy-Jaeger, K., & Roche, J. (2020). Comparing the responses of US higher education institutions to international and undocumented students in the Trump era. Comparative Education Review, 64(3), 404–427.

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