From the time Harry Wei, of China, first set foot on campus, he knew he wanted to take a heavy course load to graduate a semester early and save on tuition. Now entering his final semester at Washington University, he is on track to achieve his goal.
But new restrictions from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, will force him to risk his health to complete his studies.
The agency announced Monday that international students in the U.S. on F-1 visas would have to depart the country if they do not take at least one in-person class this fall semester. Students now face a choice — attend classes in person and expose themselves to a higher risk of catching and spreading COVID-19, or make an unsafe and expensive trip back home.
Students are not the only ones taking a hit from the new rule.
Universities rely on international students to help fund a large portion of their annual operating budget. Many pay full tuition because they do not qualify for federal scholarships and grants reserved for U.S. citizens.
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“Universities are already facing budget hits from students taking gap years or transferring, so this is a double punch,” said Diane Metzger, a St. Louis lawyer with Tueth Keeney who specializes in immigration law.
Harvard and MIT, two schools that have announced they will hold classes online only this fall, have challenged the rule in federal court, claiming that the administration bypassed the normal rule-making procedure.
“It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall,” Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said in a statement Wednesday.
Washington University issued a statement Thursday condemning the new regulation: “Let us be clear. We are strongly opposed to this change in policy, and to any and all actions that would undermine the ability of international students to come to the U.S., or remain in the country to pursue their research and scholarship,” it said in part.
Doctors such as SSM Chief Medical Officer Dr. Alexander Garza fear that more in-person classes may carry negative public health consequences.
The rule encourages “more risky behavior,” said Garza, who heads the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. “It is a disincentive for public health practices of social distancing and limiting class size to prevent spread.”
Even though Washington U. expects to adopt a hybrid model this fall, offering both in-person and online classes, Wei had planned to take his classes online because of the pandemic.
“I don’t want to go to school, but because of this policy I will have to go for classes regularly,” he said. “I will bring goggles, I will bring gloves, and I will sit in the corner of the classroom.”
A chilling effect
More than 6,000 Washington U. students have signed a petition calling for the university to stick to the hybrid model as it completes plans for fall instruction. Without in-person classes, the international student population still on campus — roughly 85% of all its international students, according to a May survey — would have to leave the country.
Rising Washington U. junior Helen Webley-Brown, who started the petition, worries she will have to pay the lease for her off-campus apartment even though she may not be able to return to campus.
Webley-Brown, of the United Kingdom, said, “I pay more taxes to the U.S. than the U.K., and that’s funding ICE, so I figured I’d have the choice to come.”
Even if universities offer in-person classes, international students do not feel assured that they will be able to stay in the country.
As the rule is currently written, if universities once again shut down from a resurgence of the virus, international students would be forced to leave or transfer elsewhere, said Metzger, the immigration attorney. To add to the uncertainty, the rule does not say if there will be a grace period for those students, she said.
For Wei, traveling back home in the middle of a pandemic would mean spending upward of $5,000 on a plane ticket and hundreds of dollars on hotel expenses to meet China’s two-week self-quarantine mandate. For others, it also could mean navigating strict travel restrictions to be able to enter their home countries.
Metzger said she fears that the rule will continue to have a chilling effect on students hoping to come to the U.S. for their college studies, after the administration restricted H-1B visas for highly skilled workers in June.
Those affected include foreign faculty members and postdoctoral fellows at universities. Many are concerned that the restrictions will make it difficult to find qualified researchers and could stifle American innovation.
“Foreign graduates are the main pipeline to the H-1B visa program,” Metzger said. “If you make it so untenable for foreign nationals to study in the U.S., they won’t go here for H-1Bs.”
Wei, who hopes to eventually pursue a master’s degree in computer science at Washington U., said, “It’s implying to us that we are not important, that we can be replaced. I fear that this is a selfish act on behalf of the government.”
In St. Louis, international students at Washington U. and St. Louis University bring in over $270 million to the local economy and support nearly 4,000 jobs, according to the Association of International Educators.
“When you have international students that come here, they not only pay tuition, they pay for apartments, food, and more,” said Betsy Cohen, executive director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project. The local economy relies on them, she said.
International students are also key to supporting innovation and growth in the region, Cohen says.
Over a third of local international students are in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — fields, said Cohen. “After graduating, they often take jobs in growing economic clusters, such as agricultural sciences with jobs at Bayer, KWS, or Danforth Plant Science Center, or at companies like Square and Cortex, startups in innovation or our larger tech companies,” she added in an email.
Research done by the Mosaic Project in 2015 and 2016 showed the St. Louis region had nearly 18,000 open jobs in STEM fields, and recommended recruiting and retaining international students to fill this pipeline.
Elza Ibroscheva, an associate provost at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, said international students are critical. “They enrich our institutions and we are better for them being part of our academic fiber.”
Ibroscheva said that the new rule is a big blow to international students everywhere. For many of them, going home would not be easy. “Home may not have internet. There may not be any safe flights to return home. Home may not even exist anymore. Their new home is the U.S. for the time being,” she said.