Merely eight days after announcing a directive meant to strip international college students of their U.S. visas, the Trump administration rescinded the move following national scrutiny. On July 6, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a directive barring international students from maintaining their F-1 visa status if their fall semester course load was entirely online.
Amid the growing surge of COVID-19, universities across the U.S. are taking precautionary measures to lessen exposure to the virus and, as a result, many have extended their current online learning method to all students throughout the fall semester—others have implemented a hybrid model mixing online and in-person instruction. The Trump administration’s order would require international students studying at universities that are not planning to hold in-person classes, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, to return to their home countries or face deportation—those already overseas would not be allowed to enter the country. While many view the move by the administration as a pressure tactic to force schools to reopen, others also read the directive as one of President Trump’s various attempts to limit immigration and the number of foreigners in the United States.
In a similar move last month, and under the pretext of the pandemic, the Trump administration issued an immigration proclamation curtailing legal migration to the United States until at least the end of 2020 to protect American jobs. The administration suspended the entry of skilled workers with H-1B or H-2B visas, J visas or L visas. As with the F-1 visas, the White House argued that the “extraordinary circumstances” made it necessary to suspend the issuing of business-based visas. According to CNN’s Priscila Alvarez and Catherine Shoichet, the White House is taking advantage of the pandemic to implement their anti-immigration agenda.
In response to ICE’s student policy change, states, universities, and individuals manifested their support for international students and condemned the administration’s decision. Harvard and MIT were amongst the first to react, filling a lawsuit against ICE and DHS. The University of California joined the lawsuit later, seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to stop the enforcement of the order. In support of this, more than 50 colleges and universities filed an amicus brief, including Princeton University, Brown University, George Washington University, and Cornell.
Professors and students also engaged in proactive and creative solutions to sidestep the restriction. American students created spreadsheets to swap their in-person classes with their foreign classmates, allowing them to maintain their visas and stay in the country. Similarly, multiple professors attempted to outmaneuver the measure. Assistant professor at the University of Florida (UF), Kayla McMullen said she planned on offering a one credit in-person independent course, leading the way for other UF professors to do the same. Various professors at other institutions followed their steps and proposed similar countermoves to the directive.
Attorney Generals from 17 states and D.C. filed a legal complaint on July 13 in a Massachusetts federal court. These states were New Jersey, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a separate suit.
In response to the order, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey tweeted on July 7, “Not on my watch. This is just another cruel (& illegal) attempt by the Trump Admin & ICE to stir up uncertainty & punish immigrants. Our state is home to thousands of international students who shouldn’t fear deportation or health risks in order to get an education. We will sue.”
Meanwhile, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a statement: “This ICE Directive puts the lives of all of our students at risk by using international students and the tuition they pay as leverage to force colleges and universities to start in-person classes before they are ready. It is reckless, irresponsible, immoral, and illegal.”
International students contribute more than $823 million to New Jersey’s economy, according to estimates from Grewal’s office. At a national level, the Association of International Educators, NAFSA, estimates that international students in the U.S. contributed $41 billion and supported around 458,290 jobs to the economy during the 2018-2019 academic year.