The Nightmare Scenario Facing International College Students

Colleges and universities face daunting decisions in how to proceed with the fall semester. Princeton has opted to split the academic year, with freshmen and juniors on campus in the fall, and sophomores and seniors attending in the spring. Harvard announced that all instruction would be online, though some students will be allowed on campus. Now comes another complicating factor. Thanks to a new policy from the Trump administration, administrators who decide online-only education is what’s right for their campus could be forced to either abandon what they had deemed their best practices or put their international students in danger of deportation. 

On July 6, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it will not grant continued visa exemptions to international students—a change from this spring, in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak—allowing them to stay in the U.S. even if their courses switch to online education. 

Per ICE, this means that this fall, international students at universities with no in-person instruction will be forced to “depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

In the aftermath of the announcement, voices on both the left and right decried the move as cruel. Meanwhile, acting Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli admitted in a television interview that the Trump administration’s real motive here is to push colleges to reopen for in-person education. That political dispute aside, ICE offered no economic justification for the policy change in its memo, and there is no apparent benefit to the U.S. that has been clearly articulated by supporters so far. However, international students could suffer greatly. Many of them come from countries with serious problems, and returning home could disrupt their ability to complete their education—or even endanger their safety.

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