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ICE Won’t Compel Foreign Students to Be on Campus

 Chinese students wait outside the U.S. Embassy for their visa application interviews in Beijing, China.
Chinese students wait outside the U.S. Embassy for their visa application interviews in Beijing, China.

Students and educators expressed relief and joy after the U.S. government withdrew a rule requiring international students to be on campus this autumn or risk losing their visa status.

Since last week, students and educators have been immersed in confusion and anxiety, they said, over the uncertainty of whether they would be allowed to attend their classes online instead of in person. Since March, many colleges and universities closed their campuses and moved classes online to thwart the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“This is a significant victory. The directive had disrupted all of American higher education,” wrote Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow in an email to the Harvard community. “I have heard from countless international students who said that the July 6 directive had put them at serious risk. These students – our students — can now rest easier and focus on their education, which is all they ever wanted to do.”

Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology had filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies, which released the directive that international students had to attend autumn classes in person – and not only online – or they would lose their visa status and risk deportation.

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"I'm pretty relieved right now because, like, you know, I have some sort of clarity on the foreseeable future,” Jaskirat Panjrath, a freshman at Parsons School of Design in New York, who had expressed great anxiety to VOA before ICE rescinded its ruling.

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“Today’s decision is a victory for campuses and communities across the nation. The July 6 guidance dangerously linked international students’ legal status to their institution’s decision-making on how best to navigate keeping their campus community safe during a highly unpredictable pandemic,” Esther D. Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, wrote in a statement.

“It put university administrators in the position of weighing the deportation of valued members of their campus community against the public health risks of holding in-person classes. We are heartened to see the guidance put to rest,” she stated.

"A victory for international students across the nation,” tweeted Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and one of 200 schools that filed court papers in support of a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology against the federal government. “Thank you to every institution and individual who joined us in speaking out against this policy and taking action to reverse it.”

“I think it’s fantastic that there were so many colleges and universities that stood behind their international students and did everything they could to ensure that we could keep our place,” Emma MacGillivray, a rising senior at Drexel University, from Canada told VOA.

“This news has given many of us piece of mind and the security in knowing that we will not be forced to leave, and we can continue our education uninterrupted,” MacGillivray, a student athlete in women’s squash.

“International students are an extraordinary benefit not just to American higher education but to our entire nation, resulting in a wealth of new ideas, cultural connections, cutting-edge technology, and life-saving medical advances, including in the fight against COVID-19,” stated Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education.

Mitchell pointed to “the economic benefit” that more than one million international students bring to the United States: about $41 billion and more than 450,000 U.S. jobs.

"Honestly, I'm feeling very relieved, of course. That was the first part like, I'm glad we don't have to go through this,” Bansari Kamdar, master’s in applied economics at University of Massachusetts-Boston, told VOA.

“But on the other side, it just has made us so aware of the precariousness of the situation of international students here, right? Like we don't know what's going to happen next,” Kamdar said.

While there are more international students in the United States than ever, analytics show a softening in enrollment in new students over the past few years, according to the Institute for International Education, which compiles an annual snapshot of international students in the U.S.

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“While this is a positive outcome, we cannot ignore the damage inflicted by the perception of the July 6 guidance – the administration was willing, until this guidance was rescinded, to force international students to choose between maintaining legal immigration status and what is best for their health and safety,” NAFSA’s Brimmer wrote.

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“The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States remains unpredictable and institutions must be trusted and be given the authority to make decisions that are right for their campuses based on their local circumstances and the safety and well-being of all involved,” Brimmer said.