Students, faculty and university leaders are pushing back hard this week against a new immigration policy that threatens to quickly remove international students from the U.S. if they take all their classes online when campuses reopen soon.
The opposition so far is coming in the form of letters, petitions and a lawsuit against the Trump administration filed Wednesday by Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northeastern University. The University of California system said it was planning legal action as well.
On Thursday, University of South Florida president Steve Currall released a statement saying the school has “very serious reservations” about the new rules and will work to ensure they don’t harm USF’s international students. He said USF has contacted “our representatives in Washington D.C.” to help.
Several petitions, including one started by a USF student, circulated on change.org, garnering thousands of signatures. An open letter, signed by nearly 27,000 faculty members from universities around the country, condemned the plan, calling it “discriminatory” and “dangerous.”
Among those who had signed the open letter as of Thursday were more than 300 faculty members from Florida universities, including nearly 50 from USF.
Harvard announced Monday that all of its undergraduate and graduate classes would be online during the 2020-21 academic year, placing its international students in the crosshairs of the new policy.
“If universities change course based on this ... decision, it would mean putting their other students and faculty at risk, forcing all back into classrooms during a pandemic,” the letter said.
Noor Kantar, a USF student who started a change.org petition that received more than 80,000 signatures, said she thought the policy was unfair and the time given was unreasonable. Students would likely bear a financial loss if they have to move on short notice, she said.
“They’re students like all of us,” Kantar said. “They have emotions too.”
Brian Connolly, chair of the USF history department who signed the open letter, said the federal guidelines unfairly put international students in the middle of a political struggle between governments and universities over plans to reopen for the new academic year.
“I think one of the things it does is put international students in danger once again,” he said. “It also puts contingent lower-paid faculty and staff in danger.”
Connolly said the policy has a “chilling effect” across higher education. It’s the responsibility of those in positions with security, like tenure and U.S. citizenship, to speak out, he said. “Even if this policy is reversed rather quickly, it’s one more instance ... that suggests the United States is a hostile place to be, and it may come up again.”
Beatriz Padilla, interim director of USF’s Institute for the Study of Latin American and the Caribbean, said the policy did not seem well thought out. It does not spell out what would happen to students whose home countries are not allowing people in due to the coronavirus, she said.
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It also ignores the role of international students, many of whom remained in the U.S. after the university closed in spring, Padilla said.
At the graduate level, she said, many students serve as research and teaching assistants whose positions were factored into course planning.
“To be an international student in the U.S., they have been selected,” she said. “They have shown their abilities and skills. In the middle of a pandemic, to do this is unfair.”
The new policy, announced this week by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, calls for students to return to their home countries if they intend to take only online classes.
If a university is offering a mix of in-person and online courses, as USF and other Florida universities plan to do for the fall semester, international students on F-1 visas may take some of their courses online and remain in the U.S. Students on M-1 visas, who participate in vocational programs, may not take any courses online.
If classes were to change from in-person to all-online in the middle of the semester, universities would have 10 days to report it and international students would be required to leave the country. Those who don’t comply are subject to immigration consequences, including possible deportation.
A Q-and-A released by the Department of Homeland Security offered little clarity on the rationale for the guidelines. It said the department sought to “maximize flexibility for students to continue their studies, while minimizing the risk of transmission of COVID-19 by not admitting students into the country who do not need to be present to attend classes in-person.”
Wednesday night, Marcia Taylor, director of International Services at USF, held a live virtual chat, fielding some of the 414 questions sent in. She reassured international students, saying they had the full support of university leadership.
“We’ve got you,” Taylor said. “We’re trying really, really hard.”
She called the guidelines “unfair and conflicting,” and told students to ignore news stories that mentioned deportation. That wouldn’t happen to them, she said, based on USF’s hybrid reopening plan. The university would help place them in courses that maintain their status, she said, and she said she was confident there will be enough in-person courses to help meet regulatory guidelines.
University officials are still discussing what would happen if USF were to go fully online mid-semester, but Taylor said any plans would ensure international students are safe.
Scott Ferguson, a professor in the department of humanities and cultural studies who also signed the letter, said the guidelines add financial pressure to an “unsafe and reckless” reopening, while treating international students in a “xenophobic” way.
“They have lives here,” he said. “The public university, for all its faults, matters and should matter — and be able to offer a place of safety and justice.”
Carlos Cabrerra, a 22-year-old USF student majoring in political science and former student senator, said he and two others are drafting a student government resolution to condemn the policy.
Cabrerra said he is a registered Republican and thinks it’s important for others to speak out on actions that are discriminatory. Some members of student government are international students, he said.
“They are what make our campus great,” he said.