U.S. Visa Changes Leave Universities and International Students in Disarray

In light of a recent directive by the Trump administration, return to an American institution this fall semester has been thrown into question for countless students in the United States.

Harvard University in Massachusetts. Cassandra Klos for The New York Times

The move, announced July 6th, could revoke F-1 student visas from foreign students enrolled entirely in online courses. International students attending universities not planning in-person classes - including the University of Southern California and Harvard University (pictured above) - would be required to leave the United States, returning to their countries of citizenship. Additionally, permission to enter the U.S. would not be granted to students intending to take only online coursework.


In the past months, several campuses have adopted measures to reduce coronavirus exposure. This move, widely regarded as a political one, pressures universities to reassess fall reopening policies and abandon their cautious approaches. Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard's president, addressed this in a statement released on July 8th.

"It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others." -Lawrence S. Bacow

Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, acting deputy Homeland Security secretary, defended the directive in a CNN interview.

"If they’re not going to be a student or they’re going to be 100 percent online, then they don’t have a basis to be here. They should go home, and then they can return when the school opens.” -Kenneth T. Cuccinelli


This move could potentially result in financial repercussions as international students impact the U.S. economy. For example, they contributed an estimated $1.2 billion to Michigan's economy in 2018.

Additionally, both private and state colleges/universities utilize international students as key sources of financing to combat reduced U.S. enrollment and state funding. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, described the rule as a "double whammy" that would result in budget cuts at many of these universities.

For some international students, the United States offers safety from conflict in their home countries. This directive challenges their sense of security. In several cases, students will be displaced from the country in which they've lived in for many years.

Furthermore, Graduate and Ph.D. students, particularly those with spouses and children in the U.S., will be separated from their families. Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, released a statement promising to challenge the rules in court, citing some of these issues.

"Massachusetts is home to thousands of international students who should not fear deportation or be forced to put their health and safety at risk in order to advance their education. This decision from ICE is cruel, it’s illegal, and we will sue to stop it." -Maura Healey


Seeking to block the directive, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT) sued the Trump Administration on June 8th. Their suit, filed in federal court in Boston, pursues a temporary restraining order preventing government enforcement of the policy on the basis that it violates the Administrative Procedure Act.

On March 13, the U.S. government suspended a rule that students with F-1 student visas must attend the majority of classes in-person. This decision was accredited to the unique crisis posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The effect of reversing this guidance, according to the lawsuit, is "to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible."

Several higher education associations have endorsed the lawsuit. The American Council on Education, in particular, intends to file a brief in support. Other associations, including the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of American Universities, and the Association of Land Grant Universities, are predicted to join Harvard University and MIT.

“We have heard from many of our members, and they all share the same concerns about the nature of the guidance,” -Pedro Ribeiro, Association of American Universities spokesman

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