U.S. Government Finally Retracts the Hostile International-Student Visa Policy

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The international students taking online courses would no longer be barred from the United States. District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs announced on July 14, at a hearing.

Background 

On July 6, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a directive. It would bar the holders of F-1 academic visas from entering the country. This would fall for online classes only. F-1 academic visas are non-immigrant visas used by PhD students and undergraduates alike. The directive, that modified the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), was announced. The announcement came after Trump’s proclamation on June 22. The proclamation claimed to stop issuing H-1B visas. International faculty members and postdoctoral researchers use these visas. They use these visas until the end of the year. 

The situation caused by the rapid spread of COVID-19 has only worsened in the United States. The students are being forced to take online lectures owing to the global pandemic. They would either have to deport the students or resort to other alternatives. For instance, transfer to a university delivering in-person classes at such a critical time, the ICE announcement indicated.

The announcement was antithetical to the decisions arrived at by most universities. By July 13, 9% of the US universities had decided to go all virtual. Some 29% were pondering over a hybrid model where online would cover a large part.

It was a matter of concern that 360,000 international students held F-1 visas in the year 2019. International students bagged 44% of the PhD degrees in academic fields. This was in the academic year 2016-17. The statistics in 2019 were recorded.

The Backlash 

The government’s decision to strip these students of their visas sent a clear message. Hence, it received a lot of resentment.

The plan could “upend the lives of hundreds of thousands of hardworking and talented students from abroad”. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) tipped off. Suzanne Ortega called the plan to nullify the visas “unworkable”. Suzanne Ortega is the president of the US Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). The CGS is a Washington-based association. They represent about 500 universities in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

Consequent Law Suits

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on 8 July sued to block this scheme. The complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief stated in detail the possible harms. It also questioned the motivation of the Donald Trump’s administration to do so. They blamed the government for trying to create a chaotic situation. A situation for both the universities and the international students. This was despite the universities’ announcements to go completely virtual.

Moreover, on July 13, 17 US States and District of Columbia followed the suit. They filed their own lawsuit on separate grounds. They called out the new visa plan as violative of the Administrative Procedure Act, 1964. This legislation outlines the rules for enacting new regulations. The Massachusetts Attorney General condemned Trump. This was for not being able to explain the “senseless rule”. A rule that compelled universities to make a choice. To choose between their international students and securing their campuses’ safety.

The Revocation 

An entire week of commotion ended On July 14. The US government following the lawsuits, announced a rescission of its policy. The same policy that earlier intended to invalidate the visas of international students.

This reversal has left the stakeholders feeling victorious. But Suzanne Ortega has said that they have to be “vigilant”.

The lawsuit by Harvard and MIT, both in Cambridge was not cancelled. It could revive if the government attempts a similar move later. ICE in a document, updated on July 15 said that it will track the situation. It may revise its guidelines “if school closures and alternative learning procedures remain necessary this fall.” Students already in the U.S. have protection by the reversal. But F-1 visa holders overseas could still have trouble entering the country. “But there is no absolute prohibition on admitting them,” David Ware, an immigration attorney in Seattle, Washington noted.


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