Trump Administration Rescinds Visa Rule for International Students Amid Pushback

Reed’s International Students still face uncertainties and challenges

In what has been called a stunning reversal in policy, the Trump administration agreed on Tuesday to rescind a directive issued last week that would have required international students to transfer or leave the U.S. if their schools held classes entirely online because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The directive, issued by immigration officials last week, would have stripped international students of their visa status if they did not attend at least one course with in-person instruction at their college or university. As it now stands, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will revert to the guidance it issued in March that allows students taking online courses to reside in the U.S., and it will rescind any implementation of the directive.

The reversal came amidst a flurry of opposition and litigation challenging the directive, including a lawsuit aimed at blocking the new policy brought by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology against Homeland Security and ICE and another lawsuit by a coalition of state governments. Reed joined dozens of other colleges, higher education associations, and companies in filing an amicus (“friend-of-the-court”) brief in opposition to the directive last week, and Reed College President Audrey Bilger condemned the ICE directive, which she described in an interview with Reed Magazine as a “cruel measure” that “serves no practical purpose and could put people needlessly at risk.” 

Reed is planning on adopting a hybrid model which incorporates both in-person and online instruction for the Fall 2020 semester, so the directive did not present the same challenges to Reed as it did to schools planning to move completely online such as Harvard. The directive, however, presented new challenges to Reed’s international students, and so the office of International Student Services (ISS) released a set of guidelines and policies directed at mitigating the effects of the directive on Reed’s new and returning international students last week. While ISS’s efforts have been lauded by some international students, the ISS guidelines, which included working with international students to register for at least one course with in-person instruction so as to meet the new federal requirement, raised further questions for international students with reservations about attending in-person classes because of health concerns. 

Some of these concerns have been alleviated as a result of the rescindment of last week’s directive, but further uncertainties remain for many of Reed’s international students. While heartened by the Trump administration’s reversal in policy, several Reed international students nonetheless emphasized the persisting challenges confronting international students in the U.S. 

For Dylan Wong, a senior psychology major from Singapore, last week’s directive was a clear message from the Trump administration to international students that “we’re less than welcome in the U.S.” 

“The directive was also clearly intended to force schools into holding in-person instruction, using international students’ statuses as pawns in this move,” Wong said in an email to the Quest. “It makes me angry that Trump is gambling with our very access to education and our health just to serve his re-election goals.” 

That being the case, Wong believes that the rescindment of the directive represents a victory for international students in the U.S. “It definitely means a lot of international students can breathe easier now that they know they can maintain access to their education,” Wong said. “It’s really heartening that there are so many large stakeholders taking our side, even if they’re doing it for their own sakes. It demonstrates that these institutions recognize the high value that international students contribute to the U.S., and that future restrictions on international students will likely be challenged with a similarly massive response.” 

Nonetheless, Wong emphasized the persistent difficulties and uncertainties that international students may face in the coming months. “Even if the administration rescinded the policy, their values haven’t changed,” Wong said. “And they’re going to continue to try and limit our access to education in the future as well.”

Annie Jiang, a senior history major from China, first learned of last week’s ICE directive through social media. Jiang described the directive as “xenophobic and unreasonable,” and, like Wong, welcomed the news that the policy was revoked. 

But Jiang also highlighted the ongoing challenges confronting international students. “I would definitely call [the rescindment of the policy] a small victory because our voices got heard,” Jiang said. “However, there’s still long-term, ongoing challenges for international students.” 

On the other hand, Zhengyao Gu, a senior computer science major from China, offered a more pessimistic assessment of the rescindment of the directive, and suggested that the backlash over the new policy was not primarily driven by a real concern for the well-being of international students in the U.S. “I wouldn’t really say it’s a victory for international students,” Gu said. “Schools didn’t sue because they care about immigrant’s opportunities. . . they just need the international students’ tuition.”

For the time being, the Trump administration’s reversal has alleviated immediate concerns regarding last week’s ICE directive, especially for Reed international students concerned about having to attend in-person classes despite health concerns in order to satisfy the requirements of the original policy. 

However, Reed’s international students still face a unique set of challenges and uncertainties. The Trump administration is set to announce a modified version of the rescinded directive in the coming weeks, but the details of this policy, along with its implications on U.S. educational institutions and international students, is not yet clear. Perhaps more importantly, international travel remains severely curtailed due to the impact of the coronavirus, and international students who left the United States after Reed shut down in March may face challenges in returning to Portland to continue their studies in the Fall. And in June, President Trump signed an executive order which suspended the issuance of certain temporary work visas such as the H-1B until the end of 2020 and announced a plan which, if implemented, could introduce new hurdles for Reed’s international students who hope to find work in the United States after completing their studies. 

The potential introduction of new travel restrictions represent a significant source of uncertainty for students such as Wong, who returned to Singapore after Reed closed down in March. Wong plans to return to Portland to continue his studies in the Fall, and although the U.S. has not implemented travel restrictions against Singapore, there is no guarantee this will still be the case come mid-August. 

“The U.S. could at any time introduce travel restrictions that would force me to change my plans,” Wong said. “This would be understandable for most countries and governments if it was being used for primarily epidemiological reasons – this government, however, is definitely using it for political reasons as well.” 

And even if the U.S. does not introduce new travel restrictions, other students may face difficulties returning to the United States as a result of restrictions put in place by their home countries. 

Chinese international students, for example, may face unique challenges in this regard. In March, the Chinese government instituted stringent restrictions on international air travel which serve as a major hurdle to Chinese international students who hope to return to Reed to study in the Fall. Dubbed the “Five-One Rule,” the policy, which is still in effect, limits all domestic airlines to one international flight per week to each country, while foreign airlines can only fly into China no more than once per week. And although a dispute in June between the American and Chinese governments led to a compromise which has allowed for a slight increase in round-trip flights between China and America, China-U.S. air travel remains incredibly limited, and plane tickets from China to the United States are “inaccessibly expensive” according to Gu. 

Daniel Zou is a Chinese student who returned to China following Reed’s closure in March, and he highlighted the difficulties Chinese students face in leaving China due to the “Five-One Rule”. “Just a lot of Chinese people right now, we’re not sure if we want to go back or if we want to stay,” Zou said. “It’s very difficult to stay [in China], especially because there’s the time difference. It’s okay to do one or two months of classes where I start my day at 9 p.m. and end in the morning, but then doing it for an entire semester…”

Unlike Zou, Gu remained in the United States and thus will not have to contend with restrictions on U.S.-China air travel, at least for the time being. Nonetheless, caught amidst escalating international tensions between the two nations that have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus, Gu said that Chinese students may face unique difficulties in the U.S. “I feel like Chinese international students are under a double ideological attack now,” Gu said. “On the Chinese side. . . the nationalist groups in China are branding students overseas as defectors and the Chinese government is condoning this kind of public opinions. While on the American side there is this governmental hostility towards immigrants. I feel like Chinese international students are really stuck in middle, [with] nowhere to belong.” 

“You don’t have choices,” Gu said. “You’re not holding your life in your hands.” But despite these many uncertainties and challenges, Jiang said, “The Trump administration is being unreasonable, but the precious educational experience I receive in the U.S. still makes me grateful and welcomed,” Jiang said. “The U.S. government doesn’t necessarily represent all of its people, meaning that Reed faculty, staff, and students still create a hospitable environment for international students even though the Trump administration is being terrible.” 

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