US reverses order, back to flexible rules for foreign students

Written by Karishma Mehrotra
| New Delhi |

Published: July 16, 2020 2:08:51 am

The July 6 order passed by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement required international students in the US to either shift to in-person classes or risk deportation. (File/Reuters)

LESS THAN a week after it had issued a directive saying international students with online-only classes would not be allowed visas to stay in the US, the Trump administration on Wednesday reversed the order.

The turnaround came on the heels of eight lawsuits from top-tier US universities, technology companies and state governments against the order.

In a hearing that lasted less than five minutes on Tuesday US time, a district judge in Massachusetts said the parties had come to a resolution to rescind the directive. It now brings back into effect a March guidance allowing flexible student visa requirements during the coronavirus pandemic.

The order passed by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on July 6 required international students in the US to either shift to in-person classes or risk deportation.

Two days later, Harvard University and MIT filed a lawsuit against the government agency. Subsequently, 180 education institutions filed a legal brief in support, stating that they had invested heavily in planning in accordance with the March guidance, and that international students make substantial economic contributions. “The question is whether these students will pursue their education in the United States, where America can reap the benefits — or whether they will attend overseas, to the advantage of foreign nations,” the amicus brief said.

Tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter also lent their support to the legal challenge on Monday, listing the contributions of international students to the US economy and skilled research. They quoted a report by the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, that, for every seven international students living in the US, “three jobs are supported due to their presence”. As well as a National Foundation for American Policy research that had found that “as of October 2018, approximately one-quarter of the private billion-dollar start-up businesses in the US were founded by individuals who originally entered the United States on an F-1 visa”.

Los Angeles, Boston and New York municipalities filed briefs against the directive, while lawsuits were also filed by state attorney generals and other universities. Even 15 House Republicans wrote a letter against the ICE directive.

Reacting to the reversal, the Massachusetts attorney general tweeted: “This is why we sue. The rule was illegal and the Trump Administration knew they didn’t have a chance. They may try this again. We will be ready.”

Not all reactions were positive. “This, unfortunately, is yet another example of the administration caving to the pressure of the business lobby and open borders advocates who continue crafting the narrative that international students are somehow anything more than temporary visitors,” said the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

There were around two lakh Indian students in the US in 2019, surpassed only by China, according to a report by the US-based Institute of International Education. International students, often not on financial loans, contribute around $45 billion, it said, citing the US Department of Commerce. This sum helps the American government subsidise much of the fees for its own students.

Several students enrolled in the US questioned the frequent changes in policy by the Trump government. A third-year undergraduate at UC Berkeley Ankuta Jain said: “It was an unnecessary political move by the Trump administration. It’s frustrating that something they didn’t care to fight for caused so much stress for international students. But I felt supported by the academic community.”

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