International students’ fall semester plans threatened

Statue of John Harvard on the Harvard University campus.

By Inyeong Kim
BU News Service

BOSTON — International college and university students have experienced constant changes to their future plans during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the United States government’s changing decisions on if students will be allowed to return for the fall semester. On July 6, the government announced a new policy which would have prohibited international students from staying in the U.S. if they only took online classes. However, that policy was rescinded a week later.

The government’s sudden change of policy has caused chaos and anxiety among international students, according to Eva A. Millona, CEO of the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

“This is an important victory and a credit to the strong advocacy of our universities and elected officials, including Attorney General Maura Healey, who quickly took the administration to court and stopped this policy before it could do enormous harm,” Millona said in a press release.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Department of Homeland Security banned issuing visas for non-immigrant students who are enrolled in fully online programs. On July 8, Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to block the ban. Just six days later, the new restrictions were rescinded. Other colleges and universities, such as Boston University, Amherst College and Northeastern University, later joined the suit.

Before the pandemic, international students were not allowed to take more than one remote class while they remained in the U.S. Since March, they have been able to temporarily take online courses during the spring and summer semesters. However, ICE suddenly changed the guidelines without notice.

Harvard, who announced they will be exclusively online during the fall semester, opposed the July 6 ruling by ICE. Other schools also became concerned. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, partnering with Davidson College, out of nearly 3,000 institutions, 21% of colleges are planning for primarily in-person classes, 24% are planning for primarily online classes, and 27% have not decided as of July 30. These numbers are constantly updated on the Chronicle’s website.

Guy Josif Adam, a former F-1 visa student who studied international law at Harvard, said the ICE policy was “immoral.” Originally from Sudan, Adam understands how international students feel if their status is insecure during the pandemic.

“It’s totally not a legitimate process,” Adam said, adding that filing a suit against the policy shows Harvard and MIT’s ethical leadership.

Aparna Gopalan, a Harvard international student and a Ph.D. candidate in social anthropology, said she didn’t consider returning to her native India because the U.S. is where she lives and keeps all her belongings. She said she hopes no more restrictions will be imposed on international students.

“I think the policy is ill-suited at this moment,” Gopalan said. “I am glad that they rescinded it.”

Adam also said the previous restriction on international students’ visas does more harm to the U.S. both politically and economically.

“It would make more sense to listen to the institution because it is their duty to protect students, and to protect U.S. relations with other foreign countries,” he said. “Because if this is the treatment that the U.S. government gives international students, they would not have good diplomatic relations with other countries.”

Around 77,000 international students stay in Massachusetts. The restriction could damage universities and locals financially, as universities rely on many international students’ full tuition.

“International students are a huge asset to the U.S. economy and to Massachusetts in particular,” Millona said in a statement. “Their talent and ingenuity are a big part of why we have some of the best universities in the world and a robust knowledge economy supported by them.”

Others recognize their value beyond higher education. In an email to BU News Service, political and legal philosopher David B. Lyons said, “U.S. business has always favored immigration to create competition for jobs and keep wages low; also to undermine labor unions … I assume that U.S. businesses had a major role in getting the Trump administration to rescind its policy.”   

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, joined by 16 other states, also filed a lawsuit against the new rule on July 13, claiming the rule as significant harm to the economy. 

“Massachusetts is home to thousands of international students who make invaluable contributions to our educational institutions, communities, and economy,” Healey said in a press release. “We are taking this action today to make sure they can continue to live and learn in this country.”

After ICE reversed its decision., Healy declared victory on her Twitter, adding, “They may try this again. We will be ready.”


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