Story at a glance

  • ICE announced on Monday that international students must attend at least one in-person course this fall in order to stay in the United States — otherwise they must return to their home country.
  • On Tuesday, President Trump said that he plans to pressure state governors and schools to fully reopen this fall.
  • More than 1 million international students attend school in the U.S.
  • Higher learning institutions such as Harvard and MIT have announced that they will sue over the new regulations.

It was announced on Monday by a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that international college students on F-1 visas will not be permitted to stay in the country if their college or university does not resume in-person courses this fall semester. The directive would strip international college students of their U.S. visas, causing confusion and panic for schools that have been scrambling to establish reopening policies amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The White House measure is being seen by some as an effort to pressure schools into fully reopening for the fall semester — abandoning cautious approaches in response to COVID-19 that include online-only classes and hybrids of in-person and online classes. 

Schools are now worried that the new regulations, if enforced, will dramatically reduce the number of international students enrolling in the fall. The regulations compound the effects of coronavirus-related visa delays and could discourage many overseas students from attending American universities, where they often pay a higher out-of-state tuition than most U.S. students.

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National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) data has shown that more than 1 million international students attended school in the U.S. during the 2018-2019 academic year, which contributed $41 billion to the economy. They supported around 460,000 jobs in the United States during the same academic year, with the majority of those jobs being in higher education itself.

Studies have shown that the financial support for these 1.1 million students comes mostly from overseas as reported by the Institute of International Education (IIE) — 57 percent of foreign students say their primary funding comes from their own family or personal resources, with another 5 percent coming from foreign governments/universities or overseas sponsors.

According to the new regulations, international students whose universities are not planning in-person classes for the fall, such as at University of Southern California (USC) and Harvard, would face possible deportation to their home countries if they are already in the United States. Additionally, the agency announced that the State Department will not issue visas to international students enrolled in full online programs, and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would not allow them into the country.

Fighting Back 

On Wednesday, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is planning a hybrid on-campus and online program for the 2020-21 academic year, sued the administration in federal court, arguing that the directive, if finalized, would prevent the majority of international students from remaining in the country while studying online. The suit seeks a temporary restraining order and injunction preventing the government from enforcing the policy, saying it was improperly implemented. Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber also said the school would file an amicus brief for the lawsuit, while “exploring other legal and policy options.”

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“As our colleges and universities navigate this unprecedented pandemic and grapple with how to continue teaching students, the Trump Administration has found ways to create more uncertainty and disruption,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement. “Massachusetts is home to thousands of international students who should not fear deportation or be forced to put their health and safety at risk in order to advance their education. This decision from ICE is cruel, it’s illegal, and we will sue to stop it.”

Meanwhile, schools like Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Stanford, NYU and the University of Pennsylvania attempted to quell fear for their international students following the announcement, with Harvard and University of Pennsylvania both promising to work with other institutions to ensure students “can continue their studies without fear of being forced to leave the country mid-way through the year,” said Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow.

Fears for a full reopening this fall semester are a result of high coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S., which has also recently seen an increase in cases as cities go through various phases of reopening after months of lockdowns. Those in favor of reopening, including President Trump, argue that young people and children are among the least likely to suffer serious symptoms from the virus, and citing countries that have already reopened schools and have not seen a related spike in cases.

This isn’t the first time that President Trump has signed off on an order that is strict on immigration — last month signing an executive order that significantly expands current immigration restrictions to include a number of guest-worker programs including the H-1B visa, which allows employers to hire highly specialized foreign workers in fields such as science, engineering and information technology.

Published on Jul 09, 2020