White House backs down, removing threat to foreign students

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Karyna Builova, an international student from the Ukraine, is breathing easier. She will be able to stay in Rochester to take business classes at Monroe Community College in the fall.

A week ago, colleges and universities here and around the country faced the possibility of losing foreign students in the upcoming semester, following a directive from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement stripping them of their lawful status if they attended online-only classes. Yesterday, the White House rescinded that decision.

“I was worried because then it would just ruin all the plans I had in my mind,” says Builova, who was planning to go back to Ukraine for a visit but canceled her plans when she became worried that she might not be able to reenter the U.S.

Karyna Builova

Builova is one of several thousand foreign students who call Rochester home. While the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology house most of the area’s learners from other nations, other smaller local colleges also host them. On average, MCC has roughly 80 international students from 30 different countries including China and India taking various courses on campus. 

In 2019, New York ranked as the No. 2 destination in the nation (California took the top spot) for more than 124,000 international students, who spent more than $5.3 billion, according to an Open Doors report published late last year by the Institute of International Education.

In a move that baffled many, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program—part of the Department of Homeland Security—on July 6 announced modifications to temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking only online classes due to the pandemic. These students would have to return to their home countries or transfer to a school with in-person instruction. 

More than 100,000 international students at colleges and universities across New York and more than 1 million nationwide faced possible deportation if they did not register for in-person classes on campuses this fall, according to the New York attorney general’s office.

Backlash from higher education institutions—most notably Harvard University, which plans to conduct all classes onlinethis fall, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology—and businesses, put pressure on the Trump administration.  Attorneys general of several states—including New York—sued the administration to block the policy change.

“The diversity of our colleges and universities is what makes New York schools among the world’s most competitive and most sought after, but President Trump’s reversal in policy not only threatens these innocent students’ educational paths, but our state’s hard-hit economy and the public health of millions of New Yorkers,” state Attorney General Letitia James said on July 13. “Schools should never have to choose between enrolling international students in in-person classes and maintaining public health, which is why we will use every legal tool at our disposal to stop the president.”

As a federal lawsuit began on July 14, brought by Harvard and MIT, U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs saidimmigration authorities had come to an agreement with the universities, and had decided to return to the policy that existed before the July 6 announcement. 

“Recognizing the great value our international students bring to the intellectual and social fabric of our university, RIT is beyond pleased that the federal government has rescinded plans to strip foreign students of their visas if their coursework is entirely online this academic year,” said David Munson, president of Rochester Institute of Technology, in a statement. “We strongly opposed this ill-conceived directive when it was issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this month and had joined hundreds of other colleges and universities in a lawsuit to stop it.”

University of Rochester also applauded the decision. Despite the rescinded order, international student enrollment is expected to decline this fall as U.S. embassies and consulates around the world have suspended routine services and many countries are subject to travel bans in a pandemic.

At MCC, having international students on campus is critical for a student body that tends to be local or may not have opportunities to study or travel abroad.

“This population of students does an amazing job at bringing world perspectives to the domestic population that we have here at MCC,” says Carly O’Keefe, coordinator of international students at MCC. “It gives them opportunity to form friendships with people from other cultures and other parts of the world and hear their unique perspectives in the classroom.”

As the pandemic forced shutdowns this spring, universities and colleges had to quickly switch to an online learning environment. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, DHS made an exception to the rule that requires students to study in a classroom. The July 6 guidance undid that exception, disallowing students to study completely online.

“That could be potentially very destructive for students,” O’Keefe says. “Even though they might be able to continue their studies online for the semester, there are things that make that a lot more difficult. We have students from countries without internet freedom, students who have to deal with time zone differences for classes that have synchronous lectures and also it could create real immigration issues for a number of students especially if going home means that they’ll need to reapply for a visa to come back. We’re in a time where you never know whether a visa could be approved again.” 

As higher education institutions grapple with a new reality, considering a hybrid format (online and in-person) or online only, losing international students, who typically pay higher tuition, after a challenging spring semester was unwelcome news. Slowly, these institutions are releasing their plans for August, which includes online learning components. At UR, all large lecture classes will be online, while smaller classes will have both virtual and in-person instruction. RIT also plans a mix of online, blended and in-person classes. MCC will have a hybrid format.

“The only classes that are going to be taught face to face are those … (where) learning outcomes cannot be accomplished without some face-to-face interaction or using specialized equipment on campus,” O’Keefe says. “Those are mostly going to be clinical health courses, science labs or certain technical courses, for example.”

Against this backdrop, ensuring that every international student would be able to take an in-person class was highly unlikely. Students in majors where courses do not require a lab or use of technical equipment on campus might not need to physically attend class. Builova, an administrative business student, is one of them.

“It’s just not academics that are disrupted; these students have created lives here,” O’Keefe says.

Adds Builova: “I’ve made so many relationships, friendships (in Rochester). It’s like a home to me now.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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