Colleges and universities in the United States, already highly challenged to decide how much to move online and lose tens of millions of dollars in revenue, or open for business as usual and put countless lives at health risk, now face added political pressure.
On Monday, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced that nonimmigrant students (F-1 and M-1 visa holders) taking fully online classes must leave the country or transfer to another institution with in-person courses for the fall. In other words, should U.S. college and universities decide to physically close classrooms but remain remotely open, international students will be subject to deportation. Since the announcement was made, higher education leaders have expressed their opposition against this “horrifying” step that puts “the entire higher education community at risk.”
While this U.S. Department of Homeland Security policy has generated more questions than answers, what is clear is that it will have no real effect on immigration over the long term. Despite this very disruptive upheaval, most international students will at least try to return to the United States and not completely abandon their studies, assuming they do not overstay and are deemed unlawfully present.
Rather, the timing of the SEVP news release is suspect. On the same day of the announcement, Harvard University announced that it would go largely online for this fall based on the “priority to support community health and well-being.” Princeton University also stated that day that most teaching will remain online. Meanwhile, partisan lines have been drawn on whether the country should fully reopen. Whether to prioritize economic recovery over public health remains hotly debated, and higher education institutions must now take a stand on this same question.
The recent SEVP policy is in no way neutral, nor is the concern a matter of immigration. It reflects a strong political stance toward reopening colleges and universities, regardless of international students’ economic impact of $41 billion and support for more than 450,000 U.S. jobs. Whether international students stay or return to their home countries is secondary.
What the SEVP policy does do is strong-arm U.S. higher ed institutions into resuming in-person classes or risking losing even more much-needed tuition revenue should their thousands of international students defer or drop out. While Harvard and Princeton will survive, most other institutions are anticipating far more serious deficits. Those that do fully reopen might seemingly attract international students needing to transfer, but anyone who knows anything about higher education knows that abruptly transferring between U.S. colleges and universities is not a realistic option.
Caught in this political power play between the Trump administration and the higher education sector are international students. The logistics of this policy are a nightmare for the over one million international students in the United States, most of whom have stayed since the COVID-19 outbreak. Not only do they have only a month or two to make immediate and impossible travel arrangements in the midst of international lockdowns, but also many institutions have not yet fully committed to going online or not or have only tentatively decided.
Additionally, continuing international students have settled in the country for years, and requiring them to suddenly terminate their housing lease, discontinue their employment and face a very uncertain educational path, all while putting their physical and mental health at risk, is nothing less than cruel. Illusions that they can simply move back “home” and resume classes online are out of touch with the very real educational challenges for many in taking synchronous classes across widely different time zones, limited internet bandwidth and firewalls, such as in China, to access course materials.
What’s more, this sudden surge in international travel will most certainly increase the spread of COVID-19 globally. The SEVP policy, in short, is a lose-lose situation for everyone.
In response, now is the time to take immediate action in opposing this nonsensical order. Call your members of Congress, sign and circulate petitions, and speak out for SEVP to drop the policy. Senior administrators, faculty and staff, make your opposition public, to your institutions and through social media.
Especially reach out to your international students, as they are feeling extremely overwhelmed and anxious over this latest news. They should not be political pawns. They are cherished and integral members of our college and university communities. And regardless of whichever way SEVP swings, institutional decisions on the extent of reopening must be based less on short-term dollars and far more on the humanitarian impact.