International students who are pursuing degrees in the United States will have to leave the country or face deportation if their universities are operating entirely online, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declared on Monday. At Columbia and Barnard, which are both reopening with a mix of in-person and online classes, international students must be enrolled in at least one in-person class to remain in the United States and keep their visas.
The new ICE policy follows a move on the part of the Donald Trump administration in late May to restrict the entry of Chinese postgraduate students. The proclamation claimed these students serve as “non-traditional collectors of intellectual property” and categorized the restriction as a matter of national security and defense. China is the most heavily represented foreign country by enrollment at Columbia.
Columbia has the fourth-largest international student population of any U.S. university, and enrolled over 11,000 international students in fall 2018. That number increases annually. International students—particularly those in master’s degree programs—provide a significant portion of the University’s tuition revenue due to the fact that the admissions process for these students is need-aware. Total student tuition made up nearly one quarter of Columbia’s operating budget in 2019.
Following ICE’s announcement, Columbia and Barnard administrators pledged their commitment to support the international community by offering in-person options and providing academic advising in an effort to keep students from being forced out. In an email sent out to the community, University President Lee Bollinger pledged to oppose the new immigration policies.
“The destructive and indefensible purpose driving these policies is by now all too familiar, as is the resulting damage to the nation’s academic institutions,” Bollinger wrote.
Columbia’s response is in line with comments made by a number of other institutions that pointed to the central role international students play in their academic and financial goals. The Association of American Universities, which represents 65 public and private research universities, including Harvard University and Columbia, highlighted that the sharp decline of international student attendance would exacerbate the financial difficulties in higher education triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
“This policy change would also have negative economic impacts because international students spend millions of dollars in our communities every year,” the AAU statement reads. “It is also likely to do further damage to our nation’s universities, which are already struggling with unprecedented uncertainty, massive logistical complications, and significant financial losses due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have sought a permanent injunction against the ICE policy from the Massachusetts courts. Under dispute is the Department of Homeland Security’s power to enact such policy changes under the Administrative Procedure Act, a legislation that grants federal agencies the power to propose and execute their own regulations.
On Thursday, Columbia announced its intent to join other leading colleges in filing an amicus brief in support of the suit.
Columbia and Barnard are working to provide connections for students overseas through the network of Columbia Global Centers and other possible “pop-up” locations, though the administration has yet to release details on how these centers will function and where they will be located.
International students who are currently outside the United States can choose to take classes online and their student status will remain valid. Among those contemplating staying in the United States, many students have raised concerns about being stuck in the country; with the possibility of travel bans, like that of the European Union, barring them from their home countries, many would be left with nowhere to go.
An email sent from Barnard’s International Student Services urged international students to consider off-campus housing if they seek Curricular Practical Training and Optional Practical Training benefits, through which they can find employment in the United States. However, these students only qualify if they are enrolled in their universities for two consecutive semesters. The email also noted that while on-campus housing is not guaranteed for students for the coming semester, “the housing exception process does take into consideration students with extenuating circumstances.”
Still, students like Yasemin Aykan, BC ’21 and president of the Society of International Undergraduates, are concerned with the health risks involved with going back to campus in the fall while COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the United States.
Though New York saw a steep decline in new cases since late April, the number of infections is still spiking across the country, particularly in Southern states. As of Tuesday, there have been over 3 million total coronavirus cases and over 131,000 deaths.
“My parents were not willing to let me go back to campus until January, whatever the school said. But since ICE announced that we would have to leave the country if we go online, it’s hard to understand what will happen to us,” Aykan said. “New international students’ experience is going to be so hard.”
Elora Mukherjee, Jerome L. Greene clinical professor of law and director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, characterized the Trump administration’s disregard for such obstacles as a tactic to curb legal immigration.
“What is unstated, though, is that this is an extension of the Trump administration’s xenophobic, white-nationalistic agenda,” she said. “The administration initially focused on so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants and has taken extreme measures to target and expel and ban undocumented immigrants from the United States. Now that attack has expanded to legal immigrants.”
Joon Baek, CC ’21 and Columbia College Student Council president, hosted an emergency town hall meeting on Monday and Tuesday for students concerned about the new ICE policy. Students began circulating multiple online petitions to oppose the new policy and demand Columbia administrators to take action.
During the town hall, students voiced grievances about the lack of clarity and consistency in Columbia’s response to the ICE policy. Students were unsure of what Columbia plans to do in terms of housing and how the policy will affect their employment opportunities.
“Every student coming from their individual country has their individual story. … It’s difficult to have a uniform policy for all international students,” Baek said.
Staff writer Candy Chan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @candyschan.