International College Students Fight ICE Visa Rules to Stay in the US

Mary Dooe
May 4, 2021

The Coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench in the plans of college students at every institution across the country. But perhaps of the most affected groups of students are those studying in the U.S. who have come here from foreign countries.   That's because of a new policy issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under the guidance of the Trump Administration, that won't allow foreign students to stay in the United States this upcoming school year if all of their classes are online.   According to the press release from ICE - which is part of the Department of Homeland Security:
"The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status."  

Impact on students

The uncertainty of the school year has many students begging their higher education institutions to find a way to let them come to campus for the year because of the instability in their home countries - not to mention the loss they will experience trying to take classes in their home country - or having to transfer to a different institution altogether.  

Impact on schools

While this could mean a drastic change to the lives of these students themselves - around 1 million in total - but it could also mean a major loss for universities, who depend on the financial, cultural, and social contribution that their often times thousands of foreign students bring to campuses big and small.   Even prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, U.S. institutions had seen a fall in the number of foreign undergraduate students attending these schools, dropping about 2 percent in the 2018-2019 school year after 12 years of growth.  

Legal battles

It's no surprise, then, that colleges are fighting back against the rule in a number of ways. The last few days have found social media circulating with reports that schools Columbia and Berkeley could be offering a 1 credit on-campus course for foreign students to have a reason to stay in the States. NYU and Brown have also announced that they plan to incorporate these vulnerable student populations into their plans for the upcoming fall.   Other schools have still not opted to go fully online for the semester and are evaluating their options as the school year looms.   More schools are also taking a harder line again the policy by suing the administration directly. In Massachusetts, Harvard and MIT have already sued the administration over the policy, especially after Harvard made the recent decision to transition to online-only instruction in the fall with the fears of COVID-19 still raging. Harvard says the guidance could affect around 5,000 of their students.   In addition to schools themselves, 17 states and the District of Columbia have also taken legal action - on the basis that the rule violates a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act. California had previously filed a separate lawsuit against the rule.  

Impact on the workforce

Even entire industries seem to be worried about the move - with big tech giants worried about the downstream effects on their workforce.   The result of the lawsuits is yet to be seen, but the shifting environment for international students in the U.S. is just another way Coronavirus is likely to change what college feels like this coming year.