With the next academic year due to begin shortly, students around the world are eagerly awaiting to see how their education will continue in the fall. However, for international students attending college in the United States, the remainder of the summer holiday will likely include even more anxiety and distress, thanks to a newly issued policy from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In a news release on Monday, July 6th, ICE announced that international students “attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course and remain in the United States.” ICE further commented that the State Department “will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online” and that “active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country.”
This is especially problematic for international students whose schools have already chosen to hold all fall semester classes remotely. According to ICE, the only way for these students to remain in the United States “in lawful status” is to “[transfer] to a school with in-person instruction.” However, with classes beginning in a matter of weeks, there is hardly time for any students to make such drastic, long term, and life-altering decisions.
Unsurprisingly, ICE’s announcement generated immediate public backlash with the American Council on Education (ACE) describing the policy as “horrifying”. They further commented that it’ll merely result in mass confusion as colleges across the United States seek ways to reopen their campuses safely. Harvard University, who revealed earlier this week that their entire academic curriculum will be taught virtually, responded by filing a joint lawsuit with MIT against the Trump administration in a Massachusetts District Court on Wednesday, July 8th. CNN has reported the universities will argue their case on the grounds of a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, and that ICE’s failure to provide an exemption for schools with “online-only courses puts [international students] in an ‘untenable situation’.”
With over a million international students enrolled in American colleges, this new policy could place all of their educational careers in danger. Should students leave the United States and resume their education remotely abroad, they will be placed in a significantly disadvantaged position compared to their American peers. Students living without access to home computers and in regions with poor internet connections will undoubtedly struggle to keep up with the rigorous pace taught at the university level, not to mention the challenges students will face who live several time zones away. ICE’s policy also places the American economy at great risk, which according to the U.S. Department of Commerce gained as much as $45 billion in revenue from international students in 2018. Should this considerable source of revenue be lost, the American economy, which has waned considerably since the beginning of the pandemic, could suffer dearly.
While this news is troubling and worrisome, it is intriguing that its announcement coincides simultaneously with the Trump administration’s adamant calls for the immediate reopening of the country. Trump just recently began his in-person campaign agenda with an in-door rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is also scheduled to hold another event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on Saturday, July 11th. Many of Trump’s allies are following suit and attempting to portray a sense of calm and normalcy even as coronavirus cases continue to surge throughout the country. In Florida, where daily COVID-19 counts are especially high, the state’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, issued an emergency declaration compelling all Florida public schools to reopen their campuses for in-person learning, regardless of whether or not physical distancing policies are even possible to enforce in such schools.
Considering that ICE’s announcement runs parallel to these other misguided reopening strategies, a plausible hypothesis regarding Trump’s true desire to reopen higher education is beginning to take shape. By threatening to remove international students from the country if schools implement entirely remote learning programs this fall, Trump is attempting to force the hands of colleges to reopen “so that it lines up with [his] overall reopening strategy.” Harvard President Larry Bacow regarded this train of thought in a recent statement, claiming ICE’s policy appears to be designed to purposefully “place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms…without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.”
Under no circumstance should remote learning ever fully replace in-person education. It is an ineffective long term policy, which caused increased racial and socioeconomic disparities last spring when it was nationally imposed as a temporary emergency solution. However, schools must find ways in which to adhere to physical distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines before a complete return to in-person learning can occur. It is therefore highly discouraging to see Trump continue to politicize the pandemic and place the entire body of international students at risk for his own political gain. It is an unfortunate and shameful use of executive power, which voters must consider this November at the ballot box.
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