After being sued by dozens of institutions, Donald Trump’s administration has backed off its bullshit plan to deny entry to international students (or require they leave the country) if their institutions switch to online-only instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Washington Post, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reversed a July 6 policy that stated no foreign students can take an “all online course load and remain in the United States,” instead requiring them to take at least some of their classes in person or lose their visas. ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) threatened that those not in compliance could face “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.” There are over a million international students in the U.S., many of whom could be impacted if schools decide holding classes is too risky amid the ongoing coronavirus surge in numerous states.
The SEVP policy aligned with the Trump administration’s broadly hostile immigration policy and would have punished foreign students through no fault of their own. Many may have already been unable to enter the country due to ongoing consulate and visa-processing shutdowns and travel restrictions. According to the Wall Street Journal, at least some students who did manage to obtain visas were blocked from entering the U.S. by immigration officials citing the July 6 announcement. As the New York Times noted, many of the students’ families are located in the U.S., and some of them may have been forced to return to home countries where they had no home or relatives (including authoritarian nations). Others would have been forced to take classes remotely from abroad, meaning the middle of the night for Asian students.
But the policy could also have had consequences above and beyond cruelty to individual students. Educational institutions across the U.S. are already facing backlash from professors and staff rightly concerned the virus could spread rapidly across the country’s campuses, but tuition for foreign students constitutes a large percentage of their overall revenue. If the SEVP’s changes went into effect, colleges might feel strong-armed into holding unnecessary physical classes that raised pandemic risk for staff, students, and the general public. Conveniently, this was all at the same time the Trump administration is desperately trying to order schools across the country to fully reopen in the hopes it will restore a sense of normalcy before elections in November.
The reaction to the July 6 announcement was outrage throughout the academic community. The Journal reported SEVP’s announcement resulted in at least nine federal lawsuits, including one from the attorneys general of 17 states and D.C., accompanied by friend-of-the-court briefings supporting plaintiffs from dozens of schools and companies.
This week’s victory was in the case brought by Harvard University, which has gone entirely online for the fall semester, and MIT, which has limited attendance and says will switch all instruction that can to online. The plaintiffs argued that ICE had ordered the change without adhering to anything resembling the legally required rulemaking process and that the decision was politically motivated and “arbitrary and capricious,” per the Journal. U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs announced that the White House had caved on Tuesday.
“The government has agreed to rescind the July 6, 2020, policy directive and the frequently asked questions, the FAQ’s, that were released the next day on July 7,” Burroughs said, according to a transcript of the hearing reviewed by the Post. “They have also agreed to rescind any implementation of the directive.”
According to CNN, a source said that the White House was intimidated by the furious response to the regulations, as well as concluded the policy was a mess in the first place. SEVP will return to its prior policy announced in March, which said that “nonimmigrant students” may “temporarily engage in distance-learning, either from within the U.S. or outside the country, in light of COVID-19.” That said, a separate source told CNN that the Trump administration may be planning to bring back a watered-down version of the policy applying only to those students who are not currently in the country.
“We are deeply grateful that the administration agreed to drop this poorly designed, counterproductive policy regarding international students,” Terry W. Hartle, the senior vice president of the American Council on Education, told the Post. “The administration just had a clunker. At the end of the day, they decided they didn’t even want to try to defend it.”
“This case also made abundantly clear that real lives are at stake in these matters, with the potential for real harm,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif told CNN in a statement. “We need to approach policy making, especially now, with more humanity, more decency—not less.”
University of Notre Dame junior Rahul Lobo, 19, told the Associated Press, “As it is, we’re living in very uncertain times, and the recent ICE policy just made things even more uncertain. Suddenly I wasn’t worrying about whether I could get back to campus, but more whether I would even be able to finish my degree in four years.”