The proposition that international students are not only sojourners but future immigrants has become well established in public policy. While education and immigration policy have become more intertwined, they continue to be analysed as separate spheres of influence. This paper compares Australia, Canada, and Germany, which between them host nearly 20% of all globally mobile students and where a nexus between international student and immigration policy has emerged. Using critical discourse analysis, a comparative case study design and based on a systematic literature review of over 300 studies published from 1990 to 2018, the findings revealed three ostensibly paradoxical discourses, which are discussed using the new term ‘discursive pairings’. First, international students are selected for success but remain vulnerable to policy shifts that may exclude them and cause them to ‘fail’. Second, international students are retained to fill economic shortages, but face difficulties being accepted on the labour market. Third, international students help build national reputation yet have been known to be exploited and subject to discrimination. The contradictions that emerge in the discourses bring into question the ‘ideal immigrant’ framing of international students, demonstrating that their role, acceptance, and ability to integrate into host countries is far from assured.