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Oregon Universities Wrestle With ICE Order Threatening To Force Out International Students

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A state licensing board fined the head of the University of Oregon's counseling office.

International students pursuing degrees in the U.S. may have to leave the country if their universities switch to online-only courses this fall. That's causing concern — and pushback — from universities in Oregon.

The order from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement states the Department of State won’t issue visas to students enrolled in schools or programs that are fully online for the 2020 fall semester, nor will Customs and Border Protection permit those students to enter the country.

International students at such schools “may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.” New federal guidance would affect the immigration statuses of thousands of international students with F-1 and M-1 visas.

“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” the order states.

“If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

Oregon’s largest universities = large international student populations

Oregon’s public universities are monitoring the new federal guidelines closely. International students account for more than 12% of the student population at the University of Oregon. Portland State University estimates about 2,000 international students, or more than 7% of its student body, and at Oregon’s largest university, Oregon State, there are well over 3,000 international students, making up about 11% of total enrollment.

According to an economic analysis by NAFSA: Association of International Educators, international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $41 billion and supported 458,290 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year. Losing international students would be a huge blow to university budgets.

Oregon State’s combined course offerings may shelter international students

OSU plans for fall term to include “multiple modalities of instruction” to provide for public health measures, according to vice president Steve Clark. Under the federal order, international students at schools that adopt a hybrid model of online and in-class instruction will be allowed to take more than one class. But universities are still wrestling with how the order applies to schools that offer a hybrid model for some classes, while most classes are being taught entirely online.

“Neither ‘in-person’ nor “online” was defined in the guidance. [These] definitions are very important to understand as during spring term at OSU, in compliance with Governor Kate Brown’s executive order for colleges and universities, OSU offered course instruction using remote conferencing tools, such as Zoom,” Clark said. “While Ecampus courses are fully taught by OSU faculty, they are designed for exclusive online instruction. Meanwhile, remote instruction using Zoom or a mix of in-person and remote Zoom instruction planned this fall are designed to support public health during a pandemic.”

But the new federal regulations still leave many unanswered questions, as a number of international students have already returned to their countries due to the pandemic. If they are not able to maintain their immigration status, OSU officials say they can provide new documentation, so that students can apply for reentry to the United States.

Universities respond to rules with advice, opposition 

In its immediate responses, University of Oregon has focused on the positive contributions of its growing international student body. 

“The UO is steadfast in its commitment to welcoming international students, and holds firm to the core belief that international students are vital to our success in research, teaching, and building diverse and inclusive communities,” said Dennis Galvan, Dean and Vice Provost of Division of Global Engagement in a statement Tuesday. “With our dedicated colleagues in UO Government Relations and other departments across campus, we are fighting this latest move by the Trump administration in coordination with many of the major higher-education associations.” 

UO also released a summary of what officials understood to be the practical impact of ICE’s order, and how students and staff should respond. The summary acknowledged administrators needed to learn more, and it characterizes the rule’s status as an “upcoming rule change,” that isn’t final yet. UO also offered advice based on what the university is offering and what the rule appears to allow. 

“Students may take more than one entirely online class, but may not take all their classes in that format,” the UO summary advises. “They need to take some classes that have an in-person instructional component.”  

The reaction at the state’s largest urban university amounted to confronting the details of the order, while anticipating a potential fight.

“I expect there will be vehement pushback on a few of these decisions by our professional association, [the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers] NAFSA, and by the membership. There are institutions that still have thousands of enrolled international students,” the email states. “We are hopeful that there will be advocacy by supporters of international education that may result in SEVP walking back some of these restrictions.”

Two days after ICE announced its new regulations, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the U.S. government in federal court, seeking to have the policies reversed and declared unlawful. They say the move “reflects an effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen in-person classes,” regardless of what’s best for community safety.

“The effect — and perhaps even the goal — is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible,” the universities said.  

A third university in Boston — Northeastern — has also joined the suit. Across the country, officials with the  massive University of California system, with its tens of thousands of international students have also said they’ll sue.

The American Civil Liberties Union has yet to file a lawsuit against ICE, but publicly denounced the regulations Wednesday. The ACLU called upon the U.S. Congress to investigate the policy change, along with all immigration policy changes since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This policy is incredibly cruel. It is inhumane, and it disrupts the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people who are planning to continue their education in the United States. It also unfairly burdens universities who are going above and beyond to make sure that students and faculty and communities stay safe,” said Andrea Flores, ACLU deputy director of policy.

“This administration — rather than develop a coherent public health response — continues to make significant changes to our immigration system that only advance an agenda against immigrants.”

In its initial announcement, ICE officials said they were scaling back “temporary exemptions” that were enacted to help colleges deal with the coronavirus pandemic. 

“There will still be accommodations to provide flexibility to schools and nonimmigrant students,but as many institutions across the country reopen, there is a concordant need to resume the carefully balanced protections implemented by federal regulations.”

The announcement said the Department of Homeland Security intends to “publish the procedures and responsibilities [...] in the near future as a Temporary Final Rule in the Federal Register.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Donald Orr, Rob Manning