In response, the president of the University of California, Janet Napolitano, former secretary of homeland security under President Obama, explicitly stated in a February 14, 2020 open letter that the university will not negotiate with the striking students and warned that “participation in the wildcat strike will have consequences, up to and including the termination of existing employment at the University.” A week later, Napolitano called for a meeting with UC’s Graduate and Professional Council, on whose board UC Santa Cruz is not officially represented. Now into the strike’s third week, many graduate students, particularly international students whose visas depend on employment at the university, remain at a critical impasse.
Before culminating in this full teaching strike, hundreds of graduate student TAs mobilized a grading strike in December 2019 to demand a cost of living adjustment that would offset their rent burden, which leads to overcrowding, high levels of student homelessness and forced moves. With an annual income that amounts to $21,000 and only nine months’ pay, a UCSC graduate student living in Santa Cruz frequently spends 50 to 60 percent of their monthly salary on rent alone. In fact, Santa Cruz is the sixth most expensive metropolitan area in the United States. Under the banner of “No COLA? No Grad(e)s!” almost 200 graduate students withheld final grades for the Fall 2019 quarter in hopes of pressuring the administration into opening negotiations with their official union representatives, the United Auto Workers Local 2865. Despite the support of the UAW president and executive board to engage in additional negotiations over the students’ housing burden, the university administration continues to refuse on grounds of the strike’s illegality since the UAW contract negotiated in 2018 prohibits graduate TAs from striking.
The wildcat strikers, however, continue to congregate on the lush green lawn at the base of campus daily at 7:30am. Supporters provide free food and water, legal and medical support and play English, Spanish and Arabic music around the clock. Their actions, such as teach-ins and guest lectures, are bringing together diverse groups from across campus and highlighting shared grievances among students, faculty and staff at the university.
As of this moment, graduate students at UC Santa Barbara voted to go on a full teaching strike on February 27, while students at UC Davis voted to begin withholding Winter quarter grades on the same day to demand a COLA and in solidarity with UCSC.
International Students Face Growing Insecurity
While all graduate student TAs are facing a precarious situation, international students are particularly vulnerable. In a February 7 email from the UCSC office of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), international students were “reminded [of] the conditions of their immigration status.” The letter stated that while participation in the strike is not a violation of the students’ immigration status, “any actions that result in student discipline or arrest may have immigration consequences, both on your current status and on possible future immigration applications you may make in the United States.” The office concluded the message by “urging” the students “to make informed and rational decisions in the actions that [they] take.”
In a February 20 open letter, a group of international graduate students explained their reasons for going on strike. Since visa holders are not allowed to seek employment off campus or take on more than a 50 percent work load on campus, they cannot offset the high cost of housing with additional work as other students do in desperation. The international students find the administration responsible for making the “implicit threat of deportation [the ISSS email] a reality by threatening to revoke Spring 2020 work appointments for striking graduate students.” Terminating employment would disproportionately impact international graduate students, who would lose their tuition waiver and thus be forced to give up full-time enrollment at the university, which would then invalidate their visas.
In recent years, obtaining a US visa has become more challenging, and sometimes nearly impossible, for students from the Middle East and North Africa. The “Muslim Ban,” upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018, restricts entry for citizens of six countries in the region: Libya, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Somalia. Only student visas, except from Syria, are exempt from this ban. Yet, even for students from non-banned countries like Zeynep, the visa process is long and unpredictable. Despite being issued a valid tourist visa and having her student visa approved by the US embassy, Zeynep’s application was still placed under the dreaded “administrative process.” This step required her to provide details for all her travels in the past 15 years, including details for each individual trip, source of funds and length of stay. Following an arduous, months-long process, with which she says the university offered no help except proposing to defer her admission, Zeynep received her visa.
Obstacles to obtaining visas disproportionately affect students and scholars from the Middle East. The Middle East Studies Association’s (MESA) Task Force on Civil and Human Rights currently runs a research project dedicated specifically to documenting widespread cases of “visa cancellations, border denials, and deportations of students and faculty from the Middle East.” The project was prompted by the denial of entry to 13 Iranian students with valid visas at US airports since August 2019. Morteza Behrooz, an Iranian student who just completed his PhD in computer science at UCSC, says that even now as a permanent resident, he still feels at risk traveling to and from the United States. Iranian students are often issued single-entry visas, “which leaves them particularly vulnerable to unfair policies” and unable to visit their families for years on end, as Morteza experienced when he first joined UCSC.
A Lasting Impact on US Academia?
The difficulties and ambiguities of the visa process risk having an adverse impact on the diversity of US academic institutions and curricula by deterring international students and discouraging exchanges and research. The field of Middle East Studies is also currently facing threats of defunding and interference by the Department of Education, such as the department’s inquiry into the federally-funded Middle East consortium between Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill due to purported anti-Israel bias. At UCSC, which inaugurated a long-awaited and celebrated Center for the Middle East and North Africa days before the strike, the university administration’s perceived pressure on its international students leaves students and scholars coming from the Middle East uneasy.
Hassan (not his real name), a third-year PhD student, says that he “feels vulnerable considering the continued tensions between the US and the Middle East.” For him, the university’s intimidation of international students far surpasses the event of the labor strike: it is more about stunting the freedoms of non-American students and scholars at US institutions. “I feel totally crippled when it comes to my participation in political life as a student here,” he explains. “Even though I was supportive of the TA strike, I felt scared to participate in the rally with other students. I know that getting arrested for whatever reason is not an option for me and will jeopardize my stay. This is oppressive. It means that I cannot freely express myself politically.”
The need for UCSC’s graduate students to fight for a cost of living adjustment accentuates the climate of severe austerity, securitization and precarity for non-citizens that have long marked life in rapidly gentrifying cities and towns in the Bay Area. For many graduate students, it is a world they navigate on minimum wage—but also one they continue to actively resist. With graduate students across the UC system organizing local COLA campaigns, it remains to be seen how the movement will mobilize for “more than COLA,” as many students and faculty chanted together over the past weeks.
UCSC is no exception to the global trend of neoliberal austerity chipping away at public educational institutions. Resources are more scarce and many students have been driven away from pursuing academic careers. Dwindling options, whether due to the overwhelming cost of living, government interference in education or crackdowns on protest, such as the February 12 stand-off between riot police and unarmed students at UCSC and the subsequent arrest of 17 protesters, is an increasingly common experience for students across the globe: from California to Cairo and Beirut. For international students relocating from those cities, as well as others, this wildcat strike brings such experiences into acute focus and bears the promise of productively linking political ideas, practices and actions across borders.
 All quotes from international students are from interviews conducted by the author.