Over the past week, several leading GOP presidential candidates, including former President Donald Trump, have taken the ongoing Israel-Hamas war as an opportunity to bash a tried-and-true GOP foe: American colleges and universities where students are participating in large-scale protests and rallies. Demonstrations include demands for a ceasefire, criticizing the killing of civilians in Gaza, and, most controversially, blaming Israel for Hamas’s October 7 attack. Consequently, numerous top Republicans have begun issuing calls to deport student visa holders deemed supportive of Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and others.
The issue dominated an Iowa campaign event on Friday, where several GOP presidential candidates competed to see who could promise the harshest possible crackdown on pro-Palestine protesters at U.S. colleges and universities. “You see students demonstrating in our country in favor of Hamas,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said. “Remember, some of them are foreigners,” DeSantis said that, were he elected president, he would cancel the visas of pro-Palestine students.
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who is currently nipping at DeSantis’s heels in the polls, raised the possibility Friday of cutting or conditioning state funding to higher education. “We have got to start connecting their government funding with how they manage hate,” she said. “Because when you do that, you are threatening someone’s life. That’s not freedom of speech.”
Offering a similar proposal, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott said that he would revoke Pell grant funding for universities that do not sufficiently condemn terrorism. A day earlier, the presidential hopeful, who is currently polling in the low single digits, unveiled a bill that would deny federal funds to any educational institution that attempts to “authorize, facilitate, provide funding for, or otherwise support any event promoting Anti-Semitism on campus.”
Predictably, the current GOP frontrunner is setting the tone for these comments. At a campaign stop in Iowa last Monday, Trump said that, if re-elected, he would revoke the visas of and deport “radical anti-American and antisemitic foreigners” enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, and promised to send Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to monitor what he called “pro-jihadist demonstrations.”
The former president also vowed to institute “strong ideological screening of all immigrants to the United States” to prevent “dangerous lunatics, haters, bigots and maniacs” from coming to the U.S. “If you want to abolish the state of Israel, you’re disqualified. If you support Hamas or the ideology behind Hamas, you’re disqualified. And if you’re a communist, Marxist, or fascist, you are disqualified,” he said.
Most legal experts agree that these proposals would fail to pass constitutional muster. “The First Amendment protects the right to speak of all people who live in this country, whether they’re here as citizens, whether they’re here as foreign nationals, whether they’re students, whether they’re visitors,” David Cole, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and a law professor at Georgetown University, told The Washington Post on Friday. Cole added that the various GOP candidate proposals were “nonstarters.”
Despite their dubious constitutionality, calls to punish or deport pro-Palestine protestors are also getting a hearing on Capitol Hill. On Friday, Indiana Representative Jim Banks and South Carolina Representative Jeff Duncan—two members of the House Anti-Woke Caucus—sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas demanding they deport student and foreign exchange visa-holders who have “endorsed terrorist activity.” “We’ve already had a record number of illegal immigrants from terrorist-harboring nations,” Banks said. “We need to shut down our border and then deport all non-citizen Hamas sympathizers.”
And in the Senate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio wrote to Blinken on October 15 demanding he institute “a thorough review” of all Visa holders and applicants in “coordination with law enforcement, both federal and state/local, as well as universities.” The next day, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton urged Mayorkas to deport any foreign citizen deemed supportive of Hamas, citing language in the Immigration and Nationality Act. Cole said the latter proposal would create “a serious First Amendment problem.”
“The proposals are not unprecedented, but the precedents are not ones we should be proud of,” he added.