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U.S. Rule Blocking Some International Students Gets Pushback


There's a hearing today that is crucial for hundreds of thousands of international students. It's about a rule that ICE announced. If a college is doing online learning only in the fall, international students will have their visas revoked. ICE says if you're doing school online, you don't need to be in the U.S. to do it. So now, some schools are suing ICE over this rule. NPR education reporter Elissa Nadworny is covering this. Good morning, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So explain what's happening here. What did ICE do and say, exactly?

NADWORNY: So last week, ICE issued guidance that said if schools were all online because of the pandemic, their students couldn't stay in the U.S. You know, this has actually always been the case. There's always an in-person requirement in order to get a visa to come to the U.S.

But last spring, when pretty much every school went virtual, ICE had allowed for flexibility for, quote, "the duration of the emergency." But now, the government has said that just because it offered leniency back in March, that doesn't mean they have to extend that policy through the fall. So this comes at a time when the Trump administration is really pushing to reopen schools.

KING: All right. So which schools are suing ICE and on what grounds?

NADWORNY: So there's several lawsuits at play from a number of states, cities and universities. But Harvard and MIT are behind the first lawsuit. And more than 200 colleges have signed on in support of that. In the suit, they allege the rules create chaos for colleges planning for a safe return to campus. And they do it in such a short timeframe.

You know, it says, sending students home is onerous and, in some cases, dangerous. There's a hearing later today in that case. The judge could issue an injunction by Wednesday. That's the deadline for schools to tell ICE if they're going to be online only in the fall.

KING: So what happens if the court goes ahead and sides with ICE?

NADWORNY: So if the rule stands, colleges and students will continue to scramble to comply. So that looks like reevaluating classes and programs. Can online offerings now be in-person or hybrid? In some cases, it's rearranging thousands of course schedules for international students.

KING: Wow.

NADWORNY: I spoke to Michael Freeman. He's the director of international students at the University of Arkansas. He says international students are crucial to campuses.

MICHAEL FREEMAN: Some of our students from rural towns, you know, have not met people from abroad. And so this gives them that opportunity to have that influence in their lives.

NADWORNY: You know, this is going to be a big financial burden for colleges. International students bring tons of money to schools and the U.S. economy - it's estimated tens of billions of dollars a year. But we're also talking about people's lives here, you know?

One of the big concerns I'm hearing from colleges is that they may start the semester in-person or a hybrid. But if things go sour or if there's an outbreak, they need the flexibility to be able to go all online. And as it stands right now, if that were to happen, a student may be sent home. Here's Hannah Buxbaum. She's the vice president for international affairs at Indiana University.

HANNAH BUXBAUM: For a lot of our students, they're very concerned that this forces them to choose between their health and their ability to continue their program of study. It's a terrible - I mean, it's just a terrible position for many of our students to be in.

KING: It certainly sounds like a very chaotic position to be in. You've talked to some international students. What did they tell you?

NADWORNY: Well, there's a lot of anxiety. Here's Bilal Majoor (ph). He's a senior architecture major at the University of Wyoming.

BILAL MAJOOR: It's definitely a kind of hysterical feeling of, like, being kind of scared, being confused and uncertain on what to do.

NADWORNY: You know, he's worried if he has to leave the U.S., he'll have to start over in Algeria back home. Many of the students I talked to feel like they're in limbo. Do they need to change their majors? Do they need to transfer to a school with in-person classes? And a lot of them are watching to see what happens in the hearing today.

KING: NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thanks, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.