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Trump is trying to kick out foreign students amid the pandemic

Since Trump took office, foreign students have only faced greater challenges in coming to the US.

Harvard Law School graduate Jesse Burbank spends time on campus before attending the online graduation ceremony in his room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 28.
Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Many foreign students have fled the US amid the pandemic, going back to their home countries while they await word from university administrators about whether they will be able to come back to campus in the fall. But some have stayed in the US — and a new Trump policy would force them to either return home, transfer to programs with in-person classes, or potentially face deportation.

The news has been a blow to students like João Cardoso, a rising senior at Yale University from Portugal on an F-1 student visa, for whom going home isn’t really an option.

His mother lives in a single rented room, and he is locked into a lease that doesn’t expire until next May. Yale subsidizes his housing as part of his financial aid package; if he were to leave the country, that money could disappear, and so would his ability to make rent.

Yale has allowed seniors to return to campus in the fall, adopting a hybrid model in which a small number of classes are in-person while the rest are online. Cardoso’s plan was to finish up his senior thesis from the safety of his apartment while tuning into online classes for his major, astronomy.

But foreign students on temporary F-1 and M-1 visas like Cardoso will no longer have the option of staying near campus while solely taking classes online.

“The news was absolutely devastating because I don’t have the safety of staying here anymore,” he said. “I’m pissed. I’m mad at what they’ve done. I think it’s really counterproductive.”

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, told CNN that the policy change was meant to “encourage schools to reopen” — part of the Trump administration’s goal of forcing American life to resume even as Covid-19 continues to spread and the death toll mounts. Foreign students who have made significant sacrifices and commitments, both financial and personal, to study in the US are thus being used as political leverage.

Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court on Wednesday morning challenging the policy, claiming it overlooked universities efforts’ to keep students, instructors and other members of their communities — especially those who are immunocompromised and face higher risk of complications from Covid-19 — safe amid rising cases nationwide.

“We believe that the ICE order is bad public policy, and we believe that it is illegal,” Harvard President Larry Bacow said in a statement Wednesday.

It’s just the latest way that President Donald Trump, who has criticized universities for “taking the easy way out” by canceling in-person classes amid the pandemic, has targeted foreign students. In recent years, he has sought to clamp down on visa programs that allow foreign students to gain work experience post-graduation, preside over sting operations to weed out student visa fraud, and make it easier for students to fall out of legal status.

Foreign student enrollment, which totaled about 1 million students nationwide in 2014, has consequently been on a steady decline since his election. That has dealt a blow to universities that rely on their talents and tuition and to the US economy — foreign students generate an estimated $32 billion in revenue annually and support more than 300,000 jobs, according to the think tank New American Economy.

Students may have to self-deport under ICE’s new policy

Before the pandemic, ICE had a longstanding policy of barring international students from living in the US while pursuing online-only curriculums. To maintain a valid visa, foreign students must pursue the number of credits necessary to complete whatever their school deems to be a “full course of study.” For students on F-1 visas, only a single online class can count towards their full course of study and, for students in technical and vocational programs on M-1 visas, none count.

ICE changed its policy as universities suspended in-person classes starting in early March to stop the spread of coronavirus, temporarily waiving limits on how many online courses foreign students can take for the spring and summer semesters. The exemption would remain “in effect for the duration of the emergency” related to Covid-19, the agency said at the time.

But the national emergency is by no means over, and universities have been working for months to determine how they can safely hold classes in the fall without becoming “super spreaders.” ICE nevertheless announced that it was updating the policy change on Monday such that students pursuing online-only curriculums would no longer be allowed to remain in the US, just hours after Harvard announced that it would be holding classes entirely online in the fall.

That still offers schools more flexibility than the agency’s pre-pandemic policy, Cuccinelli told CNN on Tuesday. And it could still be subject to change since the agency has yet to publish the changes in a temporary final rule in the Federal Register.

“We’re expanding the flexibility massively to a level never done before so that schools can use hybrid models,” he said, adding that “anything short of 100 percent online” would allow foreign students to stay in the US.

But schools say that the policy change, as described by ICE, will hamper their careful plans to reopen and leave their students with no option but to leave the country. ICE suggested that students can transfer to programs that are not online-only, but that’s impossible within weeks of the start of the fall semester.

And for many students, the prospect of returning to their home countries to take classes online is “impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous,” according to Harvard and MIT’s suit. Raúl Romero, a student at Kenyon College from Venezuela, said that returning to his home country would mean going back to a socioeconomic and political crisis that has displaced thousands and led to increases in violent crime, starvation and poverty.

Some attorneys have nonetheless expressed worry that Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit could fail — given that ICE had a longstanding policy of barring foreign students from pursuing online-only curriculums pre-pandemic, it’s harder to argue that this decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the Administrative Procedure Act. But the litigation could still delay the implementation of this policy change until the worst of the pandemic has passed.

“This is not the clearest litigation compared to some of the other things we’re litigating for the reason that there are has been for a long time, a regulation that existed that limits online courses that you can take as a foreign student,” said Ron Klasko, an immigration attorney based in Philadelphia who has litigated a number of cases successfully challenging the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

How Trump has previously targeted students

On the campaign trail in 2015, Trump voiced support for keeping foreign students in the US. But once he took office, Trump pursued a number of policies taking aim at them instead.

Trump has imposed restrictions on visa programs that provide a pathway for students to remain in the US long-term, including the sought-after H-1B visa program for skilled workers. It’s a pipeline for foreign talent, particularly in the fields of computer science, engineering, education, and medicine.

During the pandemic, Trump signed a proclamation temporarily blocking the entry of foreign workers coming to the US on H-1Bs and other visas through the end of the year. According to a senior administration official, he’s also pursuing reforms to the program that would make it harder for entry-level workers just graduating from US universities to qualify.

More than 85,000 immigrants get H-1B visas for skilled workers annually, including thousands for workers at tech giants such as Google and Amazon. Recipients are currently selected by lottery, but Trump is proposing to instead prioritize workers with the highest wages and raise the program’s minimum wage requirements.

For foreign students deciding to attend American universities, the prospect of being able to work in the US post-graduation is a major draw. Absent that ability, they might decide against choosing to attend school in the US.

Trump has also sought to clamp down on student visa fraud, using what many advocates consider to be questionable methods. ICE came under fire in November after announcing that it had been operating a fake university designed to lure in immigrants seeking to obtain student visas fraudulently — but the students claimed they were the ones who had been deceived. Some 250 students at the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan, were consequently arrested.

The University of Farmington wasn’t a real educational institution: Although ICE advertised the university as offering graduate STEM courses, it did not have any teachers, curriculum, classes, or other educational activities. Its primary selling point, prosecutors said, is a ticket to an F-1 visa.

But attorneys for the students affected say that these operations are entrapment, designed to trick unknowing international students into paying thousands of dollars to a university, while having no way of knowing that their actions are illegal.

The Trump administration also tried to make it easier for students to face penalties for violating the terms of their visas. US Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo in 2018 that meant that mistakes so minor as failing to file an address change report or having to drop a course could have prevented students from applying for a new visa or barred them from reentering the US for a period of up to 10 years, Klasko said. That memo, however, was blocked in federal court before it could go into effect.

How Trump’s attacks on students harm American innovation

Trump’s attempts to target foreign students have already led to a decline of almost 11 percent in enrollment since the fall of 2016. That drop can largely be attributed to their perception that the US is less welcoming toward foreign students.

That’s a loss for both universities and the businesses who rely on their talent and economic power. Foreign students tend to pay more in tuition than Americans and the loss of that revenue could hurt the quality of US higher education more broadly, universities have argued. At the graduate level, many serve as research and teaching assistants, now aiding critical research on the coronavirus pandemic, and some grad programs could not exist in the STEM fields and social sciences without them.

Post-graduation, many international students go on to become entrepreneurs or pursue careers in fields requiring specialized skills, particularly in STEM fields where there are well-documented labor shortages. Nearly a quarter of founders of billion-dollar American startups came to the US initially as international students, according to the National Foundation for American Policy.

Absent that talent, many businesses may have to resort to candidates that are less qualified, institute training and reskilling programs for their employees or outsource work abroad, Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said.

Even if international students go back to their home countries post-graduation, they still indirectly contribute to the US economy. Many become contact points for American businesses looking to build a relationship with companies abroad or expand their business abroad. And US-educated graduates populating foreign governments may pursue US-friendly policy.

“It is the American-trained, American-educated graduates that become the primary interlocutors,” Chakravorti said.

But as Chakravorti has observed among his own students, Trump’s immigration policies have soured many foreigners on attending university in the US or staying in the country after they graduate.

When Cardoso was accepted to Yale, he was seriously considering finding a job in the US post-graduation, but the past three years have dissuaded him. He speaks German, so he could get a job in Germany instead as a software developer and wouldn’t even need to apply for a new visa since he is a European Union citizen. For him, staying in the US isn’t worth the hassle or the heartache.

“I’m out of here as soon as possible,” he said. “I’m completely disappointed with this country in so many ways.”