The United States government has rescinded its policy that foreign (F-1 and M-1 visa categories) students taking all their courses online would have to depart the country. This order, issued on July 6 by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), encountered strong opposition from voices in academia, industry and politics after it left many of the more than 1 million foreign students in the U.S in a precarious situation. It is, however, unclear what the status of students waiting abroad is and whether they will get visas in time for the fall semester given the U.S. missions abroad are not functioning at full capacity.
The government’s decision was announced by judge Allison Burroughs during a brief hearing in a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, where MIT and Harvard had brought a law suit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the ICE. The lawsuit asked for the government’s policy, announced by the ICE on July 6, to be “ set aside.”
Tech companies and industry associations, including Google, Facebook and Twitter as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, filed an amicus brief in support of the Harvard-MIT lawsuit , citing, “significant harm” to U.S. businesses from the administration’s policies. The Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) programs were cited as important recruitment avenues for American businesses.
Separately, on Monday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced a lawsuit against the DHS and the ICE on behalf of 17 States and the District of Columbia against the same policy. A number of other universities had also filed suit in federal court.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif told the MIT community that the government’s decision to walk back the policy brought “enormous relief.”
“This case also made clear that real lives are at stake in these “bureaucratic” matters, with the potential for real harm. We need to approach policy making, especially now, with more humanity, more decency – not less,” he said.
In March last, the Trump administration permitted international students to take online classes during the pandemic. This special policy for the spring and summer semesters was to be dropped for the fall semester, as per the July 6 announcement. The ICE had also required schools to tell the federal government by July 15 whether they planned to offer only online courses for the fall semester. They were also required to certify by August 4, for each international student, that he or she would have a course-load that was either in-person or “hybrid” (part online and part in-person) so the student could maintain visa status.
Distress to students
Stories of distressed students from a wide range of nationalities across the globe emerged after the July 6 rule was announced. For some, it meant having to go back to unsafe countries. Others were faced with the prospect of being separated from their families if they were already in the US, or having to work during the night for months at a stretch if having to take classes online from abroad.
A number of U.S. lawmakers had written to the administration since July 6 asking them to rescind the order.
The issue of foreign visas had been raised by India last week at virtual Foreign Office Consultations led by Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla and U.S. Undersecretary of State David Hale. There are some 2,00,000 Indian students in the U.S. as per government data .
Tuesday’s court announcement will likely bring a great measure of relief for many international students.
“The Administration surrendered pretty quickly after the higher education community and allies mobilized and resisted through litigation,” Greg Siskind, an immigration lawyer, told The Hindu via email.
New student status unclear
However, it is unclear whether new F-1 visas will be issued to those not yet enrolled in educational programs.
“There is still uncertainty for new students who may still end up stuck abroad if their schools remain online. That group was not covered under the March 2020 guidance and we knew that was a problem for them,” Mr. Siskind said. “Perhaps the Administration will decide it’s easier to treat all the students the same and walk away from this unpopular, counterproductive policy.”
U.S. missions abroad not fully functional
There is also another logistical issue: even if the law permits a new F-1 visa for those outside the U.S., American consulates and embassies around the world may not be able to cater to demand due to staffing shortages. Routine visa services were suspended in March last with embassies providing only mission-critical visa services.
“The resumption of routine visa services will occur on a post-by-post basis,” a State Department spokesperson told The Hindu on Wednesday.
“As post-specific conditions improve, our missions will begin providing additional services, culminating eventually in a complete resumption of routine visa service,” the spokesperson said. However, the State Department was not able to commit to specific dates on which processing of specific visa categories would resume.