Trump cancels plans to force foreign students out of country amid pandemic

The reversal was a small victory for foreign students who feared their lives would be upended by the order.
Wednesday 15/07/2020
Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (AP)
Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (AP)

WASHINGTON--International students in the US are relieved after the government scrapped its controversial plan to revoke foreign student visas for those whose classes will be online-only due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The US’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency announced July 6 that foreign students must leave the country or enroll in a different institution if their classes are moved online, jeopardising the residency status of some 1 million people enrolled in US higher educational institutions.

The move, viewed as an attempt by the administration of US President Donald Trump to pressure colleges and universities to reopen for the fall semester as part of a broader push to return the country to normalcy, received fierce backlash from educational institutions and many US states.

The Trump administration abandoned the plan after a slew of lawsuits were filed against the federal government, including by universities Harvard and MIT, which both plan to move their classes mostly online for the upcoming academic year.

“The government has agreed to rescind” the decision as well as any implementation of the directive, federal Judge Allison Burroughs said in a brief hearing.

The reversal was a small victory for foreign students who feared their lives would be upended by the order.

“I might not be able to stay in the US and I also wouldn’t be safe in Hong Kong,” one US-based foreign student told the BBC after ICE’s initial announcement.

University officials and human rights activists said they were glad the move had been walked back, but expressed concern over the US government’s failure to protect foreign students’ rights.

“Thankfully, this attack on students is over,” said Andrea Flores, deputy director of immigration policy for the American Civil Liberties Union, following the ruling.

“But the administration will undoubtedly continue in its failure to protect the people in America by using the pandemic for its hateful agenda to dismantle our immigration system, rather than creating a coordinated response for the future of our nation.”

The University of Southern California, which was part of a coalition of schools suing the US government over its attempt to force out foreign students, said in a statement that it was “thrilled that the government backed down.”

“Our international students are a vital part of the USC community, and they deserve the right to continue their education without risk of deportation,” it said.

Even as the US’s coronavirus crisis worsens — with cases climbing to a world-high of over 3.4 million –Trump has sought to aggressively reopen the country ahead of November elections.

The US president has threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that refuse to reopen and criticised guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control for the safe reopening of educational institutions, saying they are too rigid and expensive.

Trump, who ran on a platform of curbing immigration, has also taken a hard line on foreigners since the crisis began, sometimes blaming them for the spread of the disease.

In June, he froze until 2021 the issuing of green cards — which offer permanent US resident status — and some work visas, particularly those used in the technology sector.