It’s been a crazy week in the world of international education.
The Bad News
The Trump administration’s policy announcement from June 23, 2020, regarding the suspension of international short-term work-related exchange programs remains in effect. The visas that are included in the suspension affects those covering internship, trainee, teacher, camp counselor, au pair, and summer work travel programs.
Cultural exchange is the primary goal of these programs. They are intended to show teachers, young professionals, college students, and the young men and women who come as au pairs different aspects of U.S. culture and society. Cutting off these options for international visitors is unlikely to add significantly to the U.S. job market, but it will prevent a lot of international relationships from being formed.
The Good News This Week
At least there was a bit of good news this week. The Trump administration had announced on Monday, July 6th, that international students would not be allowed to remain in the U.S. if their college or university ended up with a complete online curriculum this Fall. Harvard and MIT immediately sued, with a number of other universities jumping in, as well as Google, Twitter, Facebook, and other tech companies. A number of U.S. states initiated their own lawsuit. A hearing was scheduled for this week. Before the judge could rule on the universities’ request for an injunction, a settlement was reached. The administration agreed to reverse course and reinstate its prior policy from March 2020 (when most schools closed).
Many have hailed the quick turn-around not just as a bit of good news, but as a concrete example of how focused attention on a key policy dispute can get results. There is no doubt that universities and individual US states put in a HUGE amount of effort over the week between when the now-rescinded policy was announced and the Administration reversed course.
None of this was necessary; this policy was poorly thought out. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) asserted in its filing with the court opposing the universities’ motion for an injunction that it had considered and balanced the interests of colleges, international students, and the agency’s obligation to enforce immigration regulations. Seeing and hearing the reactions of university officials, professors, and individual students over the past week would seem to make it clear that no one other than the agency felt that the interests of colleges and students had been considered. Thousands of students faced additional stress beyond the stress most already faced due to impacts of the pandemic, travel restrictions, and economic uncertainty.
So, current international college students have received a reprieve. For the time being, they do not need to worry about being deported if (or when…) their college turns to a fully online curriculum this coming school year. But international education and cultural exchange continue to face additional challenges.
News reports are circulating that the administration is considering another rule to replace the policy just rescinded that could limit new international students from taking an online curriculum this Fall. In a guidance document updated Wednesday, July 15th, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said foreign students who expect to attend a U.S. college with an online curriculum but have not yet left their home countries should remain there. Universities have announced they will fight such an effort.
"While the government may attempt to issue a new directive, our legal arguments remain strong and the Court has retained jurisdiction, which would allow us to seek judicial relief immediately to protect our international students should the government again act unlawfully."
Lawrence Bacow // President, Harvard University
What About High School?
The question of high school exchange for the 2020-2021 year remains uncertain:
First, the Department of State recently told exchange organizations that exchange students will not be able to attend schools that will have fully online programs as of the start of the year. As schools start to announce such plans (as did Los Angeles and San Diego school districts this week), more and more US high schools will lose their eligibility to host students this year.
Second, many schools across the US had already decided that this year is not a good time for foreign students due to all the uncertainty connected with the coronavirus.
Third, some exchange programs have reportedly announced they will not bring any students to the U.S. this year. More are likely to follow.
Fourth, some countries have started to announce they may not be comfortable sending any students to the U.S. this year. The failure of the U.S. to control the COVID-19 virus is not creating a welcoming environment for students.
The bottom line is massive uncertainty as to whether there will be a meaningful presence of foreign high school exchange students in the U.S. this year. Those that might be able to come face the prospect of not being able to engage in school sports, theater, music, or other non-academic activities due to COVID-19 restrictions. Even more unfortunate for students and host families would be for students to end up in a totally online curriculum for school and a “shelter in place” situation for home life.
We hope this will change; change is not likely for this Fall, but we hope for the future. If you are a student thinking about study abroad, look forward to 2021. If you are a family thinking about hosting, do the same.
On Friday morning, July 17th, the US announced that travelers from Europe, the UK, and Ireland may be allowed into the country in certain circumstances and that US embassies will begin phasing in routine visa application reviews for students.