‘Pure Xenophobia’: New ICE policy evicts international students taking only online courses

Middlebury files an amicus brief backing Harvard and MIT in a lawsuit contesting the new policy

By Florence Wu

International students’ orientation in August 2019. Trump administration visa regulations could force international students at schools holding online-only classes to leave the country. (Benjy Renton)

UPDATE — Tuesday, July 14

The Trump administration has rescinded its policy that would have forced international students pursuing remote learning to leave the country. Middlebury alumna Judge Alison D. Burroughs announced the decision on Tuesday.

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International students who only take online courses next fall must leave the country, according to a new policy from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Issued on July 6, the policy affects roughly 10% of the Middlebury student population — or 250 international students with F-1 or M-1 visas — according to the college’s statistics

The new regulation also refuses visas to incoming students enrolled in fully-online schools. Nationwide, it impacts 1,095,299 international students, according to The Institute of International Education.

In response, Harvard and MIT — two schools that have announced fully remote semesters — filed a lawsuit against ICE protesting the policy. Middlebury will file an amicus brief in support of Harvard and MIT, according to an email sent to all students. In addition, Middlebury alumna Judge Alison D. Burroughs ’83 will preside over the hearing. 

Arthur Martins ’22.5 from Brazil, co-president of the International Students’ Organization (ISO), and Masud Tyree Lewis ‘22 from Guyana, executive board member of ISO, called the policy “pure xenophobia.”

New Uncertainties 

Under the policy, international students from hybrid schools such as Middlebury must take at least one in-person class. According to Martins, this requirement eliminates the option of a remote semester.

If the colleges close down mid-semester, international students must also leave the country. If not, “they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to … removal proceedings,” the policy read.

A mid-semester close down and the resulting eviction is Lewis’ biggest worry, who believes that a second wave is likely. “For someone like me who can’t easily travel home, it’s just a very uneasy place to be,” Lewis said. 

Martins, who also faces severe travel restrictions, shares Lewis’ concerns.

As Brazilian citizens are currently prohibited from entering the United States, Martins must spend two weeks in Mexico before crossing the border and then undergo more quarantine and testing on campus. He is concerned about the added Covid-19 health risk of taking more long international flights as a result of a mandatory departure.

Martins is also very worried about his “complicated family and housing situation and [his] reliance on insurance from the college to treat [his] mental health” if he has to leave the country. He believes this concern is shared by many other international students. 

“It’s all too clear that we’re not welcome here,” said Lewis. 

For international students enrolled in fully-online institutions, the policy requires them to leave the country or “transfer to a school with in-person instruction.” The latter is almost impossible given the lack of notice. The policy also neither grants visas to new students enrolled in fully-online institutions nor allows them to enter U.S. borders.

Judge Burroughs said during the hearing that “the idea that the students could be irreparably harmed, as well as the interests of society in the outcome, were fairly clear,” according to a New York Times article.

When reached for a comment, Burroughs said that she could not respond due to legal reasons.

Dissenting Voices

The policy is seen as the Trump administration’s way of “pressuring universities into reopening…even as U.S. virus cases topped three million,” according to a New York Times article.

Currently, 59% of colleges are planning to resume in-person teaching, 25% are planning hybrid mode, and 8% are planning to hold classes online only, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, anticipates changes to universities’ fall plans due to the new policy. 

“The United States is back with its gross brand of nativism,” said Elsa Korpi ‘22 from Finland. “It’s a … perverted way to force foreign nationals into in-person instruction after [its] Covid-19 response failed miserably.”

A current petition on the White House’s website calls for the Trump administration to rescind the policy. It argues that the policy eliminates the economic benefits derived from international students, harms universities’ revenues, diverts global talent, as well as increases Covid-19 health risks by compelling schools to reopen prematurely.

The petition currently has over 143,000 signatures.

Martins and Lewis believe that policy causes a great deal of harm without legitimate benefits.

“International students are constantly targeted and discriminated against in the United States,” Martins said. “We need to constantly prove that we are worthy of pursuing an education in this country.”  

Response from the College

Kathy Foley, director of International Students & Scholar Services (ISSS), said the “college did not anticipate this outcome.” In addition to filing an amicus brief, the college administration said in a recent email that they are working to ensure that international students can enroll in at least one in-person course. 

It “encourages students to explore the option of independent study courses.” Several professors have announced that they will accept any in-person independent study proposals with students affected by the policy. 

The email also claims that students currently abroad who are unable to return to the campus “will be able to study remotely with Middlebury in the fall.” 

According to the ISSS, despite the lack of clarity surrounding the policy, there is no immediate effect on students’ visa status.

“The July 6 SEVP announcement is subject to change,” Foley wrote in a recent email sent on July 14. “Please do not make any sudden decisions based on the SEVP guidance.”

Nevertheless, many students remain bitter and frustrated over the policy.

“It is hard to … not feel afraid, tokenized, forgotten, and reduced to our passports. [The policy] is a painful reminder that we are not like our fellow students,” said Martins.

Editor’s Note: Elsa Korpi ’22 is an Arts and Culture editor for The Campus.