A students sits on the steps of Widener Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Sept. 21, 2009.

Universities scramble to help international students stay in US after new visa restrictions

Trump administration rules issued this week have left many international students with lingering questions about whether they would be able to complete their degrees or return to their lives in the US. Universities are scrambling to find ways to keep their students in the country.

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Monday brought disappointing news for Harvard University sophomore Noah Furlonge-Walker. 

Due to the coronavirus, all of the university’s undergraduate classes will be held online this fall, and fewer than half of students will be allowed on campus. 

The same day, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that international students like Furlonge-Walker would be stripped of their student visas if their coursework is entirely online. Under the new rules, international students must leave the country — or would not be allowed in — if they cannot take classes in person. 

“I was pretty upset about it because it couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Furlonge-Walker, who returned to his home country, Trinidad and Tobago, after Harvard closed its campus in response to the pandemic in March. “It was a lot of news to take in on one day, and it just felt like the US was making it particularly hard on international students.”

ICE’s announcement left many international students wondering whether they would be able to complete their degrees or return to their lives in the US. It also left universities scrambling to rethink some of the pandemic contingency plans they’ve made for fall — and to find ways to keep their students in the country. Some experts say it’s the Trump administration’s way of forcing universities to reopen before it’s safe to do so.

Universities and advocates for international students were quick to slam the new rules. 

Harvard, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sued the federal government Wednesday, saying the guidelines “threw all of higher education into chaos.” The suit seeks to temporarily block the government from enforcing the policy, saying it was not implemented properly. Dozens of universities signed on to an amicus brief in support of the Harvard and MIT. And many released statements saying they are studying the guidelines and looking for ways to support international students. California also filed a similar lawsuit Thursday.

ICE’s guidance “imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem.”

Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard University president

Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow said in a statement Tuesday that ICE’s guidance “imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem.”

The American Council on Education called the announcement “horrifying.”

“This guidance raises more questions than it answers and unfortunately does more harm than good,” it said in a statement. “Regrettably, this guidance provides confusion and complexity rather than certainty and clarity.”

Some 1.1 million students were enrolled in US universities during the 2018-19 school year, according to the Institute of International Education. Most of them are on F-1 student visas. The federal government provided special exemptions that allowed them to study remotely during the coronavirus outbreak in March. Usually, those on student visas may attend a maximum of one class online; the rest must be in person.

Related: Visa restrictions on Chinese students will disadvantage US, says Queens College president

But the pandemic is far from over in the US, and many universities have opted to continue offering remote instruction in the upcoming school year. According to the Chronicle for Higher Education, which is tracking more than 1,000 universities around the country, 9% will have remote instruction and 24% will implement a hybrid model, which offers a mix of in-person and online classes. 

Under ICE’s guidelines, students will be allowed to take more than one class online if they’re enrolled in colleges and universities offering hybrid classes. But students and their universities have to go through a certification process. 

In an interview with CNN, Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the guidelines give more flexibility for international students because typically their visas only permit them to take one class online. 

“If a university …  don’t reopen this semester, there isn’t a reason for a person holding a student visa to be in the country.”

Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary,  Department of Homeland Security

“If a university …  don’t reopen this semester, there isn’t a reason for a person holding a student visa to be in the country,” Cuccinelli said. “They should go home, and then they can return when the school opens.”

Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy with NAFSA: Association of International Educators, called ICE’s new rules “frustrating and disappointing.” 

“[International students] have to make a decision — if they’re here they have to leave and take courses from abroad, or they need to transfer to another US institution that is offering in-person and hybrid classes,” she said. 

Banks said these options are not practical. She cited one survey from the Institute of International Education that found the majority of international students remained in the US after the coronavirus pandemic hit — as many as 92% remained at more than 400 institutions that responded to the survey. Those students may have also signed leases and made arrangements to stay close to their campuses for the upcoming academic year. And transferring universities is not an easy feat with schools planning to restart classes as soon as next month. 

Related: Coronavirus closures leave international students in limbo

Even if students decide to take the remote classes in their home countries, there are issues around timing and the need for proper technology, said Katsuo Nishikawa Chávez, director of International Engagement at Trinity University, a small private college in San Antonio, Texas, where 10% of the student population is international. For example, students in Asia would be taking classes in the middle of the night. Students might not have proper internet connection or face censorship issues in their home countries.

“It’s impractical — so, that student might quit and go study in Australia,” Chávez said.

For universities, it makes the already intricate calculations of what to do in the fall even more difficult.  

“It’s a very complex calculus at this stage,” Banks said. “It is so late in the process, many schools are making the decision whether to be in-person, hybrid, based on the current situation for the virus and what is most safe for students and faculty members … That’s what needs to drive these decisions.”

Related: These DACA recipients hit a ceiling in the US. So they left.

Even institutions that offer hybrid classes could shut down again depending on fluctuating circumstances around COVID-19. The ICE guidelines state that students would have to leave even if they started the year with in-person instruction, but later have to switch to online instruction. 

“Imagine a second wave hits, students would have to go home,” Chávez said. “And now, all of a sudden, in the most dangerous time to travel, we’re packing up thousands of people into airplanes and sending them abroad. It’s irresponsible.”

Furlonge-Walker is not sure if his own visa will be valid if he remains at home for the whole academic year, though some immigration experts believe that international student status can be maintained while taking remote classes abroad. At this point, Furlonge-Walker says, there are still a lot of unknowns for the coming school year. 

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel with the American Immigration Council, said ICE’S new policy is in line with the Trump administration’s broader effort to curb immigration overall during the pandemic. 

“We’re the only country in the world to ban immigrants, supposedly for economic competition reasons as a result of the coronavirus.”

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel, American Immigration Council

“We’re the only country in the world to ban immigrants, supposedly for economic competition reasons as a result of the coronavirus,” he said. 

But creating more hurdles for international students is counterproductive to the goal of restarting the economy, according to Banks.

“International students are innovators and entrepreneurs,” she said. “We wouldn’t have Silicon Valley if we didn’t have international students.”

Universities announced that they will continue to study the guidelines and will provide support to international students. 

The University of Arizona said in a statement that it’s trying to find ways to ensure international students can have “quality in-person educational experience” in the fall. At Northwestern University, which planned to offer a mix of in-person and online classes, adminsitrators said they will help make sure international students can remain eligbile to study on campus according to the new guidelines.

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