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Professors and universities find creative solutions to keep international students from getting deported

July 9, 2020, 4:39 PM UTC

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Universities are fighting back after the Immigration Customs Enforcement agency announced a policy change that bars foreign students from attending colleges that plan to go virtual in the fall. But so are individual professors, some of whom are offering up in-person independent study courses for students who could be impacted by this new rule. 

“This could have been me,” says Sirry Alang, associate professor of sociology and health, medicine, and society at Lehigh University. Alang, originally from Cameroon, was a foreign student on a so-called F-1 visa for two years. She is now offering her personal time to meet with international students one-on-one and is also pushing for a broader solution in the event the new ICE policy isn’t rescinded. (Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have already filed pleadings in the U.S. District Court in Boston, seeking a temporary restraining order that prohibits enforcement of the new policy.)

“All institutions should think about ways of offering independent studies that are in-person,” says Alang. “And we can prioritize international students for in-person [classes]. We prioritize different categories of students all the time, and it is time for us to do this.”

Sara Wallace Goodman, a professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine, was one of the first professors to offer up their “office” time to students who could face deportation. “It is in everybody’s interest that we protect these students,” says Goodman. 

Foreign students on F-1 visas make up 5.5% of U.S. higher education enrollment. What’s more, at publicly funded state schools, they often pay more to attend than their in-state counterparts. Losing international students, therefore, would present a financial hardship for many institutions—and comes at a time when they are already facing massive losses from fall sports being put on hold because of the pandemic and the recent uptick in cases across many states. 

“They subsidize American institutions,” Goodman says of foreign students. “They make our research better. Businesses rely on this talent to be competitive. It’s a net gain for everyone.”

Alang, the Lehigh University professor, points to all of the nonmeasurable ways that foreign students contribute: “They enrich our campuses. They make us better.”

Many see ICE’s order as the Trump administration’s latest attempt to pressure schools to reopen. Harvard president Lawrence Bacow issued a public letter on July 8, after the university filed suit, stating that the cruelty of the new order was only surpassed by its recklessness. “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, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others,” Bacow wrote in his recent letter. “This comes at a time when the United States has been setting daily records for the number of new infections, with more than 300,000 new cases reported since July 1.”

Pressuring universities to open in some capacity could well be the true intent of the new policy. But ICE’s order comes on the heels of several recent administration orders that seek to curb immigration of many types, including the suspension of new work visas until the end of 2020, which was met with fierce opposition from tech sector leaders in particular

The rollout of tightened immigration policies isn’t new, but it seems to have accelerated under the pandemic. And it could change the global image of our country—and our own supply of talent—for years to come.  

“It’s not because we are cut off from the world [that we are successful],” says UC Irvine’s Goodman. “It’s because we are interdependent.” 

Correction, July 9, 2020: A previous version of this article misstated the number of years Sirry Alang was on an F-1 visa.