ICE reverses policy forcing out foreign students taking classes online

Harvard university campus
Photo credit: Elisa Rolle

International students can breathe a sigh of relief: on July 14, ICE reversed its decision to require F1 and M1 visa holders taking classes fully online to leave the country. F1 students attend academic or full-time degree programs, while M1 students pursue vocational studies. 

The changes, announced without warning (in violation of the “notice-and-comment” norm), received immediate disdain from all over the country and abroad. Hundreds of thousands signed petitions, and Harvard University partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to file a lawsuit, inspiring other states and institutions to take legal action as well. 

Bellevue College President Gary Locke condemned the policy in an email sent to the community. “This […] policy, presented amid the global pandemic, is irresponsible, arbitrary, mean-spirited, and displays a lack of care for human life. The policy will have a devastating impact on our international students’ ability to complete their Bellevue College education, which will negatively impact all students.” He then announced the school’s efforts to provide in-person lectures to its international students. 

Washington Attorney General Ferguson filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration on July 10, supported by Washington’s institutions. 

The lawsuit denounces the implications of the ordinance. “The directive recklessly jeopardizes the health and safety of all university communities and surrounding areas in the State of Washington, and could also result in this State’s loss of valuable COVID-19 vaccine and virus researchers, many of whom are F-1 visa holders. Defendants promulgated this illogical and illegal new directive in an apparent attempt to enforce President Trump’s July 6 tweet that ‘SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!’” 

This went against the original provision (which allowed nonimmigrant visa holders to stay), stated to remain “in effect for the duration of the emergency,” as the suit emphasizes. Allegedly, ICE was acting as part of a strategy to force the reopening of schools by orders of the federal government, an accusation supported by the President’s insistence that schools must reopen. “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election,” he tweeted on July 8, “but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” 

ICE’s directive stated that schools that offer only online classes, such as Bellevue College, or that won’t open in fall, had to develop and submit a plan for the fall by July 15. Attorney General Ferguson described this as “an implausible deadline,” since this change of plans would require great effort to be thoroughly developed. The new arrangements would have allowed hybrid and 100% in-class programs, and required institutions to certify their international students’ attendance to a sufficient number of in-person courses. Moreover, if new developments in the pandemic forced the abrupt closure of schools, F1 and M1 students would have been required to leave or find alternatives to maintain their nonimmigrant status, like transferring to a school that offers in class sessions. For many, this is not a feasible option as it fails to meet their financial needs. 

Furthermore, as Locke explained, because many U.S. embassies around the world are closed, they would be unable to issue new visas to the students who want to return to the United States to continue their education.

Ferguson’s complaint also highlights the impact of international programs on Washington’s economy: during the 2018-19 academic year, there were 27,472 international students, who altogether brought a revenue of nearly one billion dollars. 

Over 1,100 international students from more than 60 countries have attended Bellevue College this year. “International students make up a critical part of our student body,” wrote Gov. Locke. “With their global perspectives, customs, and cultures, international students enrich the Bellevue College educational experience in and out of the classroom for all students, faculty, and staff.  We value the many contributions of our international students to our college and to the broader community.”

The pressure worked, and a week later, ICE rescinded the order. “The Trump administration has done an about-face and has rescinded that proposal,” Gov. Locke told The Watchdog in an interview. “I think the Trump administration people could tell that they were going to lose the lawsuit. And so, as a face-saving gesture on their part they had the judge announce that they are rescinding their proposal.” 

Lawrence Bacow, president of Harvard University, described the event as “a significant victory,” confident that the legal arguments posed are strong enough to protect international students from possible new directives.