Trump Admin Drops Order to Bar Foreign Students After Pushback

Ken Terry

July 15, 2020

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Under sharp pressure from states, universities, and technology companies, the Trump administration today abandoned a policy announced July 6 that would have forced international students — including international medical students — to return to their home countries if their fall college courses were conducted entirely online.

Several hundred medical students were among the roughly 1 million international college students who could have been affected by the government directive.

According to the the New York Times , the government dropped the directive in order to settle a lawsuit filed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last week. Nineteen states, including New York and California, had also sued to stop the order from being carried out. In addition, a dozen technology firms, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, came out against the policy on Tuesday.

California last week became the first state to file suit against the order, according to NBC News, and 17 other states and the District of Columbia put forth their complaint in Massachusetts federal court on Monday. Among those states were Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin, Politico reported.

New York filed its suit against the federal government in the Southern District of New York on Monday, too. "We're seeking an injunction to declare that this directive is arbitrary, it's capricious, it's an abuse of discretion, and that the administration failed to provide notice and a hearing as required by law," said New York Attorney General Letitia James at a press conference.

After the settlement was announced today, James commented in a news release, "This is welcome news for more than 100,000 international students in New York, more than one million students across the country, and millions of additional families across the world."

The government's recently announced policy was a modification of an earlier edict. According to the Harvard/MIT suit, on March 13, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced an exception to its policy that international students with F-1 visas must attend most classes in person. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, SEVP said, students holding these visas could attend classes remotely while retaining their visa status "for the duration of the emergency."

On July 6, ICE said it was rescinding the COVID-19 exemption for international students. Under the order, all students on F-1 visas whose university courses were held entirely online would have had to depart the United States, and students in similar programs who were currently outside the United States would have been barred from entering or reentering the country.

It is unclear how many international medical students are scheduled to begin classes in the United States in the fall semester, Matthew Shick, senior director of government relations and regulatory affairs for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), said in an interview with Medscape Medical News. Last year, about 700 students were accepted into MD medical programs, he said. Additional students came to the United States to study in DO programs, he added.

Many third- and fourth-year medical students would not have been affected by the new ICE policy because they had returned to clinical rotations, Shick said. "The cohort of medical students who will be most impacted by this guidance are the first- and second-year students, who are doing classroom course work," he noted before the government's reversal.

Shick couldn't say what percentage of medical schools are planning to offer online-only didactic courses. About a dozen medical schools have told the AAMC they plan to be fully online, he said. In addition to those schools and the Ivy League universities cited earlier, several colleges in the University of California system plan to provide courses remotely in the fall.

This is probably just the tip of the iceberg, because medical schools will have to plot their course forward as the pandemic and state regulations evolve. Moreover, many faculty members are reportedly reluctant to expose themselves to COVID-19 in face-to-face classes.

Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, a professor of psychological science at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, noted that his institution's plan is to "go back to as much face-to-face teaching as we can safely do." The university has a carefully thought-out strategy to return to in-person classes with fewer than 50 students each, he said.

"That's the plan for now. I say for now, because most of us, when you look at the numbers of [COVID-19] cases from this week [in Oregon], find it hard to imagine feeling comfortable going back in face to face," Gurung said.

If universities had to switch back to holding courses only online because of how the pandemic evolved, international students would still have faced the possibility of deportation, Shick pointed out.

Why Did ICE Do This?

According to Politico, ICE said its new policy was intended 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."

However, critics of the directive said it was a blatantly political attempt to force universities to reopen more quickly than they felt comfortable doing. New York Attorney General James pushed back against that concept in an earlier news release, saying, "International students should never be used as political fodder to force colleges to reopen their doors."

From the viewpoint of medical leaders, the ICE directive ran counter to the nation's healthcare needs. In a letter to Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Matthew Albence, deputy director of ICE, the American Medical Association (AMA) asked on July 9 that the guidance be rescinded.

"At a time when physicians are needed in the US more than ever, it is unwise to deter medical professionals from coming to the US now and potentially in the future. Moreover, this modification [of the F-1 visa exemption] will likely cause medical students to attend school in other countries, leading...to a brain drain as other countries obtain and likely retain the brightest young medical minds from across the world," James L. Madara, MD, executive vice-president and CEO of the AMA, wrote in the letter.

Following the dropping of the order, AMA President Susan R. Bailey, MD, said in a news release, "The AMA is pleased that the Administration has reconsidered what would have been a setback for US public and rural health. International medical students can now focus on their studies ― rather than their immigration status ― as they prepare to enter the health field and help fight this pandemic."

Gurung, who was once an international student from Bombay, pointed out that the ICE policy could have influenced the US physician supply in a number of unforeseen ways. "You have to factor in all those other strings that are attached: the potential changes in financial aid, the potential changes in the person being able to continue studying. For anyone to say, 'You don't have to be here to study, it's online, it's wherever you are,' they're ignoring that just sending a student home doesn't mean that everything else goes on. You've introduced a number of new factors that could affect the completion of their studies and our physician supply."

Gurung also emphasized that international students have to jump through a lot of hoops to study in the United States, and their families may have to make considerable financial sacrifices. He said he had received emails from a number of students who were upset and stressed because of the earlier ICE decision.

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