For the past four years Raul Romero has lived and studied in the United States preparing for a career in international relations or doing humanitarian work.
But the last day or so has thrown his future in jeopardy. Originally from Venezuela, Romero’s ability to live in the United States is tied to his student visa. On Monday, the Trump administration announced that international students like Romero would have to return to their home countries if all of their coursework is online this fall.
“I was crying,” Romero said of the moment he heard the news. For the 21-year-old to return to Venezuela would be “heartbreaking” for him and his family, he said.
For years, Venezuela has been plagued by hyperinflation, frequent power outages and food and medicine shortages. Romero’s relatives in the country struggle to find gas and his family has been living on their savings after they had to close the cheese shop that supported them last year.
“Going back there would be going back to a humanitarian crisis,” Romero said of Venezuela. “I would be basically going from having a meal in the school cafeteria to not even knowing whether I’ll find enough food in the store to eat.”
For now, it appears that Romero’s future is safe. His school, Kenyon College, has said that it’s planning for in-person instruction this fall. But given the constantly evolving nature of the pandemic, Romero said he worries about what will happen if the school is forced to change its decision.
“We’re all going through a lot of uncertainty and stress,” he said.
Colleges prepare to offer a fall semester unlike any other
Romero is one of potentially thousands of students who could be impacted by Monday’s announcement from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The news comes as colleges prepare for students to begin a fall semester unlike any other in just a few weeks in some cases.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, schools are balancing concerns of revenue and safety as they determine whether to offer courses remotely, in-person or in some kind of hybrid. ICE’s announcement came on the same day Harvard University said it would be conducting its classes remotely.
ICE’s guidance, “really puts both international students and institutions in a no-win situation,” said Miriam Feldblum, the executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a coalition of university officials focused immigration policies’ impact on higher education.
Carissa Cutrell , an ICE spokeswoman, wrote in an email that “the health and safety of nonimmigrant students is a top priority.” A working group with representatives from several government agencies, “determined that three options — remote learning from outside the U.S., in-person classes and a hybrid model that combined both in-person and online classes –provided the best options for flexibility for nonimmigrant students,” she wrote.
There were roughly 1 million international students in the U.S. in 2019, according to the Institute of International Education, which promotes international exchange . Many of them won’t be impacted by the announcement, said Dan Berger, an attorney at immigration firm, Curran, Berger & Kludt, who works with universities, students and faculty on immigration issues.
Berger said he’s still reviewing the details of the guidance, but it appears that the only international students in the U.S. who would be affected by the policy are those whose coursework is completely online. In addition, international students who returned to their home countries and are taking online classes at U.S. institutions could have their ability to work in the U.S. after graduation jeopardized by the announcement.
Though many international students will likely be able to continue their studies, the announcement “scares everybody,” Berger said. That’s the case particularly because the guidance comes on the heels of other recent announcements from the Trump administration curbing immigration to the U.S. including: limiting the entry of certain students and scholars from China into the U.S.; temporarily freezing certain categories of work visas; and bans on travelers from certain countries in the wake of the coronavirus.
“It creates this general big picture fear of ‘Am I going to be able to start school and am I going to be able to stay in school and will I be able to work during school and after?’” Berger said of Monday’s announcement.
From flexibility to rigidity
Typically, international students are not able to get a visa to live in the U.S. if they are taking all of their coursework online. But in the first few months of the pandemic, immigration authorities offered flexibility for schools and students, as concerns over health and safety pushed colleges to shut down their campuses and only offer instruction remotely. That meant that during the spring and summer, international students could take all of their coursework online and still remain in the U.S.
“We’re seeing a turnaround where that flexibility is gone and they’re really enforcing more of a rigid model,” Berger said. “What this guidance does is it takes away all the flexibility and it takes out the public health flexibility.”
Ted Mitchell, the president of the American Council on Education, a lobbying group representing more than 1,700 colleges, called the guidance “horrifying” in a statement. “We urge the administration to rethink its position and offer international students and institutions the flexibility needed to put a new normal into effect and take into account the health and safety of our students in the upcoming academic year,” Mitchell wrote.
Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, said in a statement that the school is “deeply concerned” about the policy’s “blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem,” adding that the guidance “undermines the thoughtful approach” to planning for the fall taken by Harvard and other schools. In the statement, Bacow said Harvard would “work closely with other colleges and universities around the country to chart a path forward.”
A chilling effect on international education in the U.S.
The announcement comes as the Trump administration is pushing for all schools, including K-12 schools, to reopen. It also comes after years of tension between the administration and the higher education establishment.
“Many of those who oppose immigration to the United States have long disliked the pipeline of foreign students to the United States,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, Policy Counsel at the American Immigration Council, an immigration advocacy group. “This administration often attacks universities as elite liberal institutions, so when universities say ‘you need to be flexible to protect us,’ it’s hard not to look askance at the politics” of the announcement, he said.
This approach has likely already had a chilling effect on students’ willingness to study in the U.S., Feldblum said.
“It’s a direct threat to the future of international education in the U.S.,” she said. “There have already been a number of actions by the administration that indicate that international students are not welcome here.”
International students are critical to the U.S. higher education community, Feldblum said. For one, they bring diverse experience and perspectives to coursework and research. In addition, international students who stay in the U.S. following graduation are often engines of innovation in their communities. International students who return home also act as ambassadors both for their institutions and the U.S. more broadly.
But perhaps most critically, they bring in money to institutions and communities that are already likely strapped by the pandemic. At public colleges, international students typically pay full out-of-state tuition. In addition to the funds they pay to universities directly, international students also spend in the communities where they live. International students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the Institute of International Education, which promotes international exchange.
Now, these students may bring their dollars and talent elsewhere, Feldblum said. “There’s no doubt that students who are feeling unwelcome by the U.S. have other choices and that countries like Canada and the U.K. are taking advantage of the obstacles that the U.S. is now putting in the way of international students,” she said.
João Gabriel Rabello Sodré was drawn to pursue his PhD in history in the U.S. by the diversity of the faculty and student body at U.S. institutions and their world-class research resources. “This is something that you don’t find in other places,” he said.
But now, the 31-year-old is concerned about the future of his studies in the U.S. He returned to his home country of Brazil in March as the impact of the pandemic became clear. But he’s unsure about what ICE’s announcement means for the rest of his academic career in America. Right now, his school, Georgetown University, is pursuing a hybrid approach to instruction. But after this academic year, Sodré will almost exclusively be doing research to complete his program.
“It definitely changes my plans and worries me about the future because we don’t know when this will be over,” he said. “If the pandemic continues to go on, what will happen to me? Will I be able to go to the U.S. to do library research or to stay at home and read and write?”