Faced with growing opposition, the Trump administration abruptly reversed its July 6 decision to revoke international college students’ visas—and thus deport them—if they do not take at least one in-person course in the fall.
20 states, as well as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sued the federal government over the policy. Over 200 colleges and universities signed in support of the lawsuit. They argued the policy was a political means to pressure schools to reopen in the fall and that it disregarded the safety risks posed by COVID-19.
“The abrupt change ignores the realities of the global pandemic and is yet another ill-timed and ill-conceived attack on our international students,” stated Portland State President Stephen Percy and Provost Susan Jeffords in a statement released July 8.
15 congressional Republicans and large corporations such as Google and Twitter also supported withdrawing the policy.
The administration dropped the new policy nine days after creating it. The announcement came minutes before court hearings were set to start on the case brought by Harvard.
International students may remain in the United States even if their fall courses are entirely online. This follows an earlier ruling from March which allows international students to pursue more online coursework than had been allowed before the onset of COVID-19 in the U.S.
Over one million international students study in the U.S., including nearly 1,200 at PSU. International students contributed over $40 billion to the economy in 2019, according to an announcement by PSU in support of PSU’s international students.
According to Nya Mbock, the international affairs director of the Associated Students of PSU, international students are vital to financing PSU.
“They are the backbone of a lot of different departments,” Mbock said. “We can’t afford to lose international students’ trust. We can’t afford to make them feel like they’re not a priority because they’re an utmost priority.”
Colleges and universities rushed not only to sue and petition the government to revoke its decision, but also to provide options to international students in case the plan went into effect in the fall.
The Office of International Student and Scholar Services put together a webpage to provide students with updates regarding the changing situation. It includes information on which courses count as in-person credits—not only classes, but also student leadership and graduate research and thesis work.
PSU also planned to issue new I-20 student visas affirming international students studying at the university were taking in-person credits.
ASPSU created an ad-hoc committee to plan ways in which PSU could keep its international students in the U.S., according to Mbock. ASPSU worked to create student-taught classes to provide more options for in-person credits.
PSU students experienced significant emotional distress as they scrambled to change their academic plans for fall. Suddenly, they needed to determine whether they would be able to remain in the U.S., or if they would have to leave the country at the height of a pandemic.
“It was heartbreaking,” Mbock said, “thinking [international students] might have to leave on such a whim.”
“That loss of control in a time when everything is uncertain and there’s so many things happening with COVID-19 and with racial tensions—it’s just another thing on an already overflowing plate,” Mbock said. “The amount of emotional duress this ruling put international students under, and they’re just supposed to recover from that?”
Ida Ayu Karina Dwijayanti, an international student from Indonesia, was devastated when she first heard about the federal government’s decision to revoke student visas.
“In the beginning of [the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.], when all of my friends went back home, to their home states or their own countries, I specifically chose to stay in the U.S. despite being completely alone, just so I could still be here by the fall term,” Dwijayanti stated. “So, when I found out I should either take a class that I don’t really need or get deported, I was really sad and disappointed because I could’ve gone home earlier.”
For those who are particularly at risk for COVID-19, in-person classes are simply not an option.
Some international students felt themselves forced to decide between their education and their safety.
“A few students were telling me they wouldn’t want to leave,” Mbock said. “If this was going to happen they would want to stay, even if it was illegally.” According to Mbock, these students were willing to put themselves in dangerous situations in order to continue their education, which they had worked so hard and paid so much to obtain.
Dwijayanti worried what would happen to international students if the borders to their home countries remained closed. “If they got deported, where would they stay?”
“Now students feel so uncertain. Now they’re worried they could do this again,” Mbock said.
“There’s this loss of trust in American education…that’s not something we’ll get back in a day.”