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In a brazen and outrageous attempt to force the hand of colleges and universities across the country as they consider how to reopen this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Monday that international students attending colleges may not take a full online course load this fall semester and remain in the United States. These changes could affect tens of thousands of students across the country.
Additionally, the US 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 US 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. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings. This approach has the potential to suddenly label as “criminal” a group of law-abiding students. Many of them have already signed leases for the fall and have paid health insurance; restricted air travel may prevent them from securing repatriation flights back to their home countries.
This new guidance is masquerading as a public health protective measure when in fact it is nothing more than a misguided amplification of the Trump administration’s nationalistic anti-immigration stance. It has minimal protection value and a great potential to harm a talented pool of students, the institutions of higher education that serve them, and research scientists who depend on skilled team members to advance research for the collective good.
The American Anthropological Association is convinced that college and university campuses will be much healthier environments with online instruction as the default, and when administrators make sure that specific, well-funded, properly staffed testing and contact tracing plans are in place for the fall term. The new ICE guidance punishes foreign students who are lawfully residing in the United States on student visas and threatens to harm the institutions where they study. Whether classes are being held entirely or partially online, colleges and universities depend on the presence of international visa holders, and many students cannot complete their work without access to the archival, library, laboratory, and technical resources of their institutions.
The ICE rule flies in the face of established scientific evidence regarding pandemic infection control and potentially harms schools that put the health and safety of their students, faculty, and surrounding communities first. It’s a move that may, unfortunately, prove to be “fatally” flawed.
For everyone’s health, safety, and educational well-being, we call on the US government to reinstate and extend the temporary visa exemptions for international students without regard to whether their schools are focused on online instruction.