BYU international students are celebrating the Trump administration’s decision to rescind rules from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that would have forced them to leave the U.S. when classes went online after Thanksgiving.
But some students are worried future rules affecting their ability to complete their studies from within the U.S. may be forthcoming.
The rule would have taken an immense emotional, physical, and financial toll on international students. Their obstacles would have included time zone differences, travel bans and border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a lack of resources in their home countries.
Bittersweet victory for students
Bobo Choi, an information systems major from South Korea, first heard the news from another international student and was amazed at the Trump administration’s decision to reverse the rules. “It’s been really nice. I was thinking of so many different ways I can work around it or be prepared, but now I don’t have to worry about it.”
She expressed gratitude for BYU for the way it handled the situation as well as her international and American friends for sharing resources.
“My Instagram has been blown up with all the information,” she said. “Seeing that support has just made my day.”
Samuel Albello, a freshman from the Philippines studying international relations, said he felt immense appreciation for BYU and the other universities who stood up for their international students.
“I felt extremely relieved. For the past few weeks, I’ve been on the edge since the ICE policy was announced,” Albello said. “All the previous academic, financial and emotional worries we had of being deported out of the U.S. have been dissipated.”
He said he feels more secure studying in the U.S. but has an underlying concern that ICE could find a loophole in the system and enact a new policy that would send international students home during their studies.
“If that happens, and I hope it won’t, it will no doubt be devastating for both universities and its students,” he said.
Andrea Zapata Mejía, a pre-communications sophomore from Spain, said she is also frustrated with the situation and worries there may be more changes during the semester.
“It seemed a little bit like a joke, you know, one day they say one thing and then a week after that, they change it and say something else,” she said. “How many new statements and new policies are going to be happening?”
Advice for international students
Kim Buhler-Thomas, an immigration attorney and owner of Buhler Thomas Law, said the future of ICE’s rules unclear. Whether parts of it will be re-enacted is still up in the air.
“We may receive further clarification from ICE regarding the rescinding of last week’s policy about online classes for F1 visa holders,” she said.
In the meantime, she cautions international students not to travel outside the U.S. within the next six months, citing recent White House executive orders that suspended certain classes of immigrants from entering the U.S. until Dec. 31.
“While not expected, there is always a risk that if an international student leaves the U.S. the government may issue a similar executive order preventing them from re-entering,” Buhler-Thomas said.
Additional announcements affecting international students may include an executive order not allowing new international students to enter the U.S. to study for the first time as well as restrictions to the Optional Practical Training program, according to Buhler-Thomas. OPT allows students to stay in the U.S. for an additional year, or three for certain STEM majors, to work in a job related to their field after graduation.
The rules’ current and historical context
Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli praised the rules for giving “more flexibility than has ever been provided before” in an interview with CNN on July 7.
ICE regulations usually bar international students from taking more than three online credits, typically equivalent to one course. That rule was temporarily waived in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new rules released July 6 removed that waiver for completely in-person schools but gave some flexibility to schools adopting a hybrid model. Students at these schools would be able to take more than one class online as long as their entire course load isn’t online.
Critics of the rules called them a scheme to pressure universities to reopen, and multiple universities and states sued the Trump administration over the rules.
David B. Thomas, another attorney at Buhler-Thomas’s firm, doesn’t see ICE’s July 6 announcement as a ploy but as an attempt to determine how to deal with existing rules during the pandemic.
“It can’t be something that’s new and concocted only for the purposes of exacting a different outcome because it’s been a rule,” Thomas said.
The origin of tighter restrictions on student visas goes back to 9/11 when Hani Hanjour, a terrorist who hijacked a plane and flew it into the Pentagon, was admitted into the U.S. on a student visa. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Hanjour’s supposed destination was an English as a second language program in Oakland, California, but he never attended the program.
Although Hanjour was the only one out of the 19 hijackers who had arrived on a student visa, subsequent false claims that the majority of the hijackers overstayed student visas became popular and raised concerns about international students as security threats.
The USA Patriot Act and Student Exchange Visitor Information System, the Department of Homeland Security’s system to maintain information on students with F-1 and M-1 visas, were launched shortly after the attacks and implemented regulations to address fears about terrorists’ ability to abuse the student visa system.
These post-9/11 crackdowns on student visas included the current rule about online classes.
“The attendance in class was really an important piece of all of this because in that way they said, ‘Well, we know where they are, they’re on campus taking classes,” Thomas said. “This was their way of trying to address managing kids that come in on student visas.”
The government’s ability to keep track of international students has, like everything else, been curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic — and ICE has to evaluate how to balance security with the unique situation brought on by COVID-19.
“Their approach to this is really unfair,” Thomas said. “Sure we understand what their objectives are, but now we have the coronavirus. Is there a different way you can approach this rather than trying to just eliminate the international students? That’s not even trying to come up with a fair and equitable approach.”