On July 6, the government of the United States of America announced that international students could not stay in the country if their entire course load was online.

In the words of Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security:

‘If they’re not going to be a student or they’re going to be 100 percent online, then they don’t have a basis to be here’.

Two days later, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed the first of many lawsuits to block this action. They were joined by over 50 higher education institutes filling an amicus in support, 20 attorney generals of state and big names in silicon valley.

After a week fuelled by uncertainty, students all over the world celebrated the swift reversal of policy on July 14.

So, why are international students important?

On an objective level, the one million international students contribute significantly to the economy. A 2019 study by NAFSA finds that these students directly contribute over 41 billion dollars and help in the creation of 458,290 jobs in the United States.

Culturally, international students are integral to creating the more diverse environment every university strives for. They bring different world views and perspectives and go on to help shape a more tolerant society.

If international students bring so much to the table, why did the Trump administration seek to ban them?

This administration has been very clear on its agenda with immigration policy and the coronavirus pandemic has given the perfect opportunity to cinch legal entry into the country. Just last month, authorities tightened their grip on green cards for multiple foreign nationals and temporarily halted work visas for workers in almost all sectors.

Beyond their stand on immigration, the policy was essentially forcing the hand of universities to accelerate reopening of institutions regardless of the state of the pandemic. The rule mandated that international students must have at least one ‘in-person’ in order to keep their visa status, which left institutions scrambling to create a one credit on campus class.

Had this rule turned to law & what were the implications?

As Senator Bernie Sanders put it:

‘Foreign students are being threatened with a choice: risk your life going to class in-person or get deported’.

Students essentially had two choices, risk going to class in one of the world’s worst affected countries or rush to get a flight back home.

How do students justify the cost of paying full tuition to a university providing them with online classes in a completely different time zone? How do they justify breaking lease agreements, quitting part-time jobs and the uncertainty of being able to return back to class?

Even as there is a collective sigh of relief, the lose-lose situation provided by the Trump administration is likely to reduce the number of international students enrolling in US universities — a trend already being seen pre-pandemic.

As the tide shifts, it will be interesting to see how universities adapt and the long-term socio-economic impact this change in sentiment brings. But for now the American dream is still alive.

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