Trump administration rescinds controversial international student online education rule

The announcement follows outcry from students and legal challenges by their universities, including AU

Trump administration rescinds controversial international student online education rule
Cherry blossoms in bloom on an empty campus.

Following public outcry and the signing of an amicus brief by dozens of universities, including AU, the Trump administration announced on Tuesday that it has rescinded a policy that would have required international students to leave the U.S. if they took only online classes. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the policy reversal at the beginning of a hearing concerning the decision. The suit was filed jointly by Harvard University and MIT, with 59 other schools, including AU, signing on, via an amicus brief.

“It was the right thing to do, [but] I do not commend Trump for doing what was right,” said Silvia Hernandez Benito, a rising junior from Spain. “That was such an unnecessary amount of stress and uncertainty placed on international students and institutions alike.” 

On Monday, 17 states and the District of Columbia filed their own lawsuit against the policy, arguing that the decision was “senseless and cruel,” and placed undue burden on universities and their students. The Department of Homeland Security and plaintiffs reached a resolution on Tuesday to the lawsuit brought by Harvard and MIT. 

In their brief, the schools argued that the government’s July 6 directive that changed the policy for international students, arbitrarily and without warning, ran completely in opposition to the previous guidelines that were established as the coronavirus pandemic intensified in March. Those rules suspended earlier laws, which prevented international students from taking fully online classes in the U.S.

The brief argued that the ICE rule would have violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires that courts strike down decisions by agencies that they find to be “arbitrary and capricious.” To avoid this, agencies must implement policies that are reasonably explained, address previous policies and guidelines, and are considerate of the impact of the changes. 

Many international students at AU said that they were blindsided and overwhelmed by the initial decision last week, The Eagle reported on Tuesday. President Sylvia Burwell, and seven other Patriot League presidents, denounced the policy in a statement on Saturday. 

“It's an emotional rollercoaster,” said Frieder Dengler, a Ph.D. student in the School of International Service. “The feeling of extraordinary vulnerability will not go away any time soon.” 

Dengler, who is from Germany, is engaged and was concerned about facing separation from his partner if the ICE rules had gone into effect. 

“American University is pleased with today’s decision that ensures international students can safely continue their educational pursuits in different ways while we address the challenges of COVID-19,” AU spokesperson Stacie Burgess wrote in an email to The Eagle.

Colleges and universities have spent the last few months preparing for the fall semester, based on the guidelines released in March, they argued in the brief. With these new changes, much of the work already done would have been made irrelevant, especially with only a month until the beginning of the semester. 

“When issuing this new directive—with no warning or demonstrated need for a change—the government did not even mention, let alone consider, the reliance interests engendered by its March 13 Guidance. Those interests cannot be overstated,” the brief stated. 

The universities argued in the brief that they need flexibility to deal with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

The brief stated that the schools “reasonably acted in the belief that they could settle on whatever plan best advanced academic and public health imperatives, without disadvantaging thousands of international students.”

About one million international students attend schools in the U.S., according to the Institute of International Education. In the brief, schools argued that the loss of these students would have harmed their communities and institutions, along with the students themselves, many of whom would have been forced to either complete their degrees from their home countries or forego them completely. 

In a statement to The Eagle, SIS Ph.D. student Shagun Gupta, who is from India, said she is “extremely happy” that the Trump administration rescinded the rule.

“It's a big win for universities and students,” she said. “Although there's murmurs on Twitter that the DHS may still try to target newly enrolling students, for now it's a huge relief. Hard to quantify the hours spent in stress and anxiety though.” 

Abbie Veitch contributed reporting to this article. 

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