ICE reversal: part push to reopen schools, part hardline immigration policy

ICE reversal: part push to reopen schools, part hardline immigration policy
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A federal judge scheduled a hearing for Tuesday regarding updated policy issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for international students studying in the United States. The ICE announcement reversed provisions adopted last spring as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. The policy requires college students to take some course content in-person or leave the country, even if their school believes in-person classes risk public health. 

The chaos, uncertainty, and projection of hostility created by the order are unambiguously bad for students and universities, harm U.S. standing as the international leader in higher education and erode U.S. influence abroad. Even if lawsuits against the change prevail, the negative reputational and economic effects of the attempt will reverberate for years.

Regular rules governing international students in the U.S. mandate that they carry a full course of study with no more than one course per term online. Spring guidance in the wake of COVID-19 allowed students to shift to online instruction and remain in the U.S., or to maintain their visa status while continuing studies abroad. The announcement is more flexible than “business as usual” but more restrictive than the spring modifications. 


A few provisions are key to understanding the announced rules for international students: they must take some classes in-person or leave the U.S.; if a school experiences a COVID-19 spike and transitions to remote learning, they must leave the U.S.; and currently enrolled students unable to return to the U.S. can continue studies remotely only if their school has moved to online-only offerings. 

The dual intent of the administration in issuing this order can be understood best in the context of other recent decisions. President TrumpDonald TrumpFranklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Man suspected in wife's disappearance accused of casting her ballot for Trump Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' MORE made clear his desire for in-person classes, disagreeing with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to safely reopen K-12 schools and threatening to cut funding to schools that did not reopen. The acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services showed administration strategy clearly, arguing the ICE rules will “encourage schools to reopen.”

The desire to reopen schools does not explain why students trapped abroad are prevented from continuing their studies remotely if their program offers the in-person components the administration desires. The rule can derail the course of study for students who cannot arrive before the semester starts, making it less likely they will return to finish later. 

This fits a pattern of recent policies seeking to restrict entry to the U.S. President Trump signed an executive order suspending many new work visas until the end of 2020. The administration announced a policy allowing officials to deny asylum claims on public health grounds, move health experts have previously declared “specious.” The administration is further seeking to decrease eligibility for asylum, a change the UN refugee agency says will deny “many people fleeing persecution” a chance to even request asylum in the U.S.

The pressure to return to in-person classes and a desire to exclude more non-citizens are behind the ICE rule change, the consequences of which will be large and lasting. International students add to the diversity of thought, ideas, and creativity in U.S. universities, making the country a global leader in higher education. More than one million international students study in the U.S. every year, paying billions of dollars in tuition and contributing to local economies. 


The punitive nature of a rule change just weeks before the semester and during a pandemic, forcing some students to leave the country and others abroad to suspend their studies, sends a signal that the U.S. government places low value on their welfare.

Envision college students not knowing when or if they can continue their studies, facing travel costs mid-program they never anticipated and cannot afford, contemplating abandoning leases to comply with visa rules, and trying to travel across the globe during a pandemic. This attempt to make international students feel less welcome decreases the competitiveness of U.S. institutions in attracting future talent and diminishes the good feeling that students take with them when they return home, even if the provisions are ultimately blocked.

Presidents across the political spectrum have embraced international students as a benefit and a means of shaping the U.S. role abroad. Colin PowellColin Luther PowellOvernight Defense: Biden makes his Afghanistan decision Colin Powell on Afghanistan: 'We've done all we can do' Is nonpartisan effectiveness still possible? MORE, Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, stated that international students “return home with an increased understanding and often a lasting affection for the United States. I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here.” The Trump administration is eroding the value of that asset and jeopardizing its future.

Sarah Bermeo is an associate professor of public policy and political science in the Sanford School at Duke University, director of graduate studies for the Master of International Development Policy degree, and author of "Targeted Development."