Trump administration orders ICE to freeze international college student visas for online-only learners

The Trump Administration has issued a stunning decision that will impact international students and enrollment in U.S. higher education. 

On July 6, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department (ICE) announced that all international students wishing to continue their college studies in the U.S. must be enrolled in at least one in-person course for the upcoming fall semester. Under the guidelines, international students already in the country who fail to comply will be stripped of their F-1 or M-1 visas and forced to return home, while those currently abroad will be barred from reentering the country. 

This divisive mandate reverses the pandemic-induced flexibility displayed by ICE back in March that temporarily allowed international students to complete all spring semester courses online. The fallout from this decision is likely to disrupt the education of many international students while also putting the financial stability of colleges and universities at risk. 


Why did they do this?

According to a recent New York Times article, ICE enacted this restriction as a “directive from the Trump administration” intended to “pressure universities into reopening their gates and abandoning the cautious approaches that many have announced they would adopt to reduce Covid-19 transmission.” 

A related piece by Reuters details how the day after this drastic policy reversal was revealed, President Trump emphasized his stance by saying it’s “ridiculous” for colleges to conduct an online-only curriculum during the upcoming school year, referring to the virtual route as “an easy way out.”

Many are arguing that this move to restrict international student access to higher education in the U.S. is just another example of President Trump using the pandemic to advance his immigration strategy. Americans desiring stricter immigration laws see international students as a long-term threat to U.S. jobs and are backing their president despite the negative impact this new policy is likely to have across the country.


Students and administrators react

International students, faculty members, and administrators were caught off-guard by this announcement. Students who are unable to quickly enroll in an in-person fall semester class are at risk of being sent back to their home country. Colleges are expecting a decrease in international student admissions as a result, which could have immense implications as these students typically pay more tuition than domestic students and contribute to diversity on campus.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, the president of the Association of American Universities called the policy change “cruel and misguided.” Harvard’s president went a step further in accusing ICE of enacting this policy “to pressure universities to hold in-person classes without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors and others.” The consensus among those directly involved in the situation seems to be that the Trump administration’s presumed benefits of enacting this policy are far outweighed by the negative educational, financial, and health consequences expected to follow. 

In a letter to the Georgetown community, President John J. DeGioia wrote: “Our University strongly opposes this reckless action. It creates new and unnecessary barriers for international students and puts their health, stability, and academic progress at risk if they are unable to participate in classes in-person. The new requirements fail to recognize the invaluable contributions of our international students within our community and the impacts of this abrupt change during an ongoing pandemic.”


How Higher Ed is handling its newest obstacle

With schools like Harvard and MIT intent on an online-only curriculum for the upcoming school year, this unforeseen policy shift regarding online students throws a huge wrench in their plans. In an effort to avoid massive reductions in enrollment revenue from international students and the need to adjust their fall semester strategy, both institutes of higher learning filed federal lawsuits against the Trump administration, ICE, and the Department of Homeland Security seeking “a temporary restraining order and injunction preventing the government from enforcing the policy.” 

While it’s likely that other schools join these Boston-based institutions in legally challenging this decision, some are taking another route that implements a hybrid model, with both in-person and online classes. Columbia and the University of Pittsburgh are two schools choosing this route and they’re doing so to “alleviate the negative effect of these new regulations.” Another option that’s gaining favor with schools is adding new in-person classes to their course catalog so that international students can enroll and meet the requirement, as NYU did.

President DeGioia added that Georgetown University is “working on a number of fronts” to address this issue. He said the school has joined others in filing “an amicus brief in federal court opposing this new, damaging guidance” and working with academic departments to update their hybrid-flexible models “to try to include sufficient in-person components in Fall programs to satisfy visa requirements for international students, even if the new guidance stands.”