Uproar and criticism grows over ICE directive on international students

Students and pedestrians walk through the Yard at Harvard University, after the school asked its students not to return to campus after Spring Break and said it would move to virtual instruction for graduate and undergraduate classes, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/Files

NEW YORK – From the day Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a directive last week, for international students to leave the United States if their colleges and universities only offered online courses in the fall, a huge uproar began, with frenzied petitions by students to stymie the rule that has the potential to upend their life and career.

Within days it’s grown into a bigger movement, with overwhelming support for the cause of the students: there are multiple lawsuits from universities and the state of California against the decision; 136 Capitol Hill lawmakers have come down forcefully on the Trump administration; and university heads and several professors nationwide have lambasted the move, vowed to help students circumnavigate the irrational new rule.

California sued the Trump administration on Thursday, arguing the ICE directive could worsen the spread of COVID-19 to require attendance in person.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Northern California is supported by leaders from the California State University and California Community Colleges systems and alleges that the new federal policy unfairly harms students and that campuses would suffer financially from the lost revenue, reported the Los Angeles Times.

“It is a callous and inflexible policy that unfairly disrupts our more-than 10,300 international students’ progress to a degree, unnecessarily placing them in an extremely difficult position,” Cal State Chancellor Timothy White said in a statement.

The policy guidance issued Monday by ICE is also seen as harmful to California Community Colleges, at which some 21,000 international students are enrolled, according to Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley.

“We will not sacrifice the benefit of the diversity of experiences and perspectives that international students bring to our colleges, nor will we sacrifice the safety of any student, faculty or staff member at our 115 colleges,” Oakley said.

“In addition to being cruel, Defendants’ attempt at a policy change to force in-person learning in the middle of a pandemic is absurd and the essence of arbitrary and capricious conduct in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act,” the lawsuit says.

California had nearly 162,000 international students in 2019, according to a report by the U.S. State Department and the Institute of International Education.

The University of California is separately planning to go to court to seek a temporary restraining order to bar enforcement of the new federal policy on grounds it violates the rights of the university and its students. More than 27,000 UC undergraduates last year were nonresident international students who could be affected.

At the same time, USC has joined an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that challenges the federal rules, reported the Times.

In a statement, ICE said that international students on an F-1 and M-1 visa had been granted a temporary exemption allowing them to attend online courses because of COVID-19.

“This policy permitted nonimmigrant students to take more online courses than normally permitted by federal regulation to maintain their nonimmigrant status during the COVID-19 emergency,” the agency said.

However, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said he is going to court to preserve the ability of international students to study in the U.S.

“Shame on the Trump administration for risking not only the education opportunities for students who earned the chance to go to college, but now their health and well-being as well,” Becerra said.

Earlier, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit over the new rules on Wednesday, arguing the new rules did not appear to take the health of students and faculty into consideration and would cause chaos at universities and colleges around the country.

“We will pursue this case vigorously so that our international students – and international students at institutions across the country – can continue their studies without the threat of deportation,” Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote in a statement addressed to the Harvard community.

“I consider the announced policy nothing short of disgraceful. It runs counter to our core commitment to our international students, who are central to our educational mission and our diverse and robust community. We value our international students and are committed to their academic progress and to their health and well-being”, stated William M. Treanor, Dean, Georgetown Law.

The lawsuit against ICE will come up for hearing on July 14, 2020. Judge Allison D. Burroughs expressed concern about feasibility of delivering opinion prior to July 15th deadline for colleges to submit plans to ICE, reports said. In 2017, Burroughs ordered a halt to President Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, a policy that was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court.

The White House, meanwhile, seemed unmoved by the reaction to the ICE directive, and were determined to see educational institutions open up fully in the fall, as urged by Trump.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at a press meet that the students should be the ones to sue, unable as many of them are to not be able to attend classes on campus.

“Perhaps the better lawsuit would be coming from students who have to pay full tuition with no access to in-person classes to attend,” McEnany told a White House news conference.

Democratic lawmakers were quick to action, as they saw another opportunity to attack the Trump administration, and possibly deliver an embarrassing defeat in the courtroom.

A group of 136 Democrats from the US Congress and Senate sent separate letters to the heads of the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, urging them to reverse course, as the directive seemed to be “animus towards non-citizens and immigrants”.

“The ICE’s announcement of their plans to force out or deport international students who remain at US colleges and universities and who are taking a full online course load is cruel and unconscionable. These students are already in the United States, are established members of educational communities, and have been determined through the visa screening process to pose no danger to the United States,” the lawmakers, including Sen. Kamala Harris, wrote.

According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education, there are more than one million international students in the United States. In 2018, international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy, including paying taxes. These students represent 5.5% of the entire U.S. higher education enrollment.

Foreign students’ financial contributions are keenly felt in some schools and communities, where they pay higher tuition bills than some local students, and support real estate markets and local jobs, reported Reuters.

Foreign students contributed $44.7 billion to the U.S. economy during 2018, the IIE report says, citing the U.S. Department of Commerce. The financial support for these 1.1 million students comes mostly from overseas too, the IIE report says – 57% of foreign students say their primary funding comes from their own personal or family sources, and another 5% from foreign governments, foreign universities, or overseas sponsors.

China was the largest contributor to the foreign student body in the United States, followed by India and Saudi Arabia, the reports says.

Foreign students in the United States often pay more to attend school than local students, including paying “out-of-state” tuition at publicly-funded state schools and additional charges aimed at oversees entrants.

These charges brought in more than $10 million in extra annual revenue at Purdue University. Big schools that are household names are likely to have a long waiting list of possible enrollees, available to take the place of any international student, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education, which represents schools in Washington, D.C.

Student advocates and supporters were trying to help by holding in-person classes on campus for international students; help them retain their visa.

William Hurst, a professor of Political Science at Northwestern University tweeted: “Without official action by @NorthwesternU , I will offer an in-person independent study (on any topic of their choosing) to any graduate student of @PoliSciatNU who holds an F-1 visa and needs such a class to remain legally in the United States. Please email me if you need this.”

Aparna Gopalan, 25, a fourth-year anthropology PhD student at Harvard originally from India, said ICE’s suggestion that students transfer to in-person universities is not realistic just weeks before classes begin, reported CNBC.

“That betrays a complete lack of understanding of how academia works,” she said. “You can’t transfer in July. That’s not what happens.”

“This administration clearly is not one that’s welcoming to immigrants, and this extended very clearly to international students as well,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, to USA Today. “It also places a lot of pressure on international students to try to attend in-person classes, which many might be uncomfortable with.”


The University of Texas at El Paso said in a statement Tuesday the university will work with each of its more than 1,400 international students individually to meet federal requirements for an F-1 student visa.

“I think the Harvard statement was definitely the right thing to do,” said Shriank Kanaparti, an Indian student who will be a senior at Harvard. “All my friends across different universities are also in support of this because it collectively helps international students as a whole.”

Kanaparti said he is exploring opportunities in other countries. He also reached out to the Harvard Club of India to curate local job opportunities for students willing to come back to India.

“The general consensus seems to be that the top global talent pool might move from being concentrated in the U.S. to becoming more global and distributed,” Kanaparti said.

“There definitely are other ways that the administration could have pushed towards the desired outcome,” Kanaparti said. “This policy is just extremely disappointing for the larger international community.”

Newsday reported Stony Brook University students in the United States from abroad will not lose their F-1 visas or have to leave the country this fall as long as they remain enrolled full time and in at least one three-credit, on-campus class, university officials said this week.

Of the university’s 25,576-student enrollment in the spring, 4,133 were international students.

While Stony Brook and other local universities intend to reopen with a mix of online and in-person classes, which will be within the rules of ICE for international students to stay on in the US. But the situation is fluid.

“There is no guarantee we’ll be able to have any in-person courses,” said Andrew Dobbyn, 32, a doctoral candidate in philosophy who is business agent for the Graduate Student Employees Union of Stony Brook.

“That’s horrifying – I couldn’t sleep,” said Mita Rawal, who’s studying pharmacology at the University of Georgia, was reported saying by The Washington Post. “It’s not just me, it’s my son, he goes to school here. If I had to pack up my bags and go to Nepal,” she said, and then broke off. “I had not anticipated in my wildest dreams that I would be in this situation,” she said.

The issue has also been taken up by the Indian government with the US.

“These new modifications at a time when many of the US universities and colleges are yet to announce their plans for the new academic year are likely to cause uncertainties and difficulties for some Indian students wishing to pursue their studies in the US,” said a spokesperson of the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, reported PTI.

At the India–US Foreign Office Consultations held on July 7, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla conveyed India’s concerns on the matter to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale.

“We continue to engage all the stakeholders in the matters, including the US administration officials, Congressional leaders, universities and colleges as well as the Indian students community in the US as we move forward towards the 2020-21 academic year to further strengthen our bilateral partnership in higher education,” the spokesperson said.



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