By Amelia Brown
The Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP) announced on July 6th the changes to its temporary exemptions for international students at universities in the United States for the upcoming fall semester.
Under the new modifications, international students at schools that are operating fully online next semester will not be allowed into the US, must leave the country if they are already here, or transfer schools to one that has in-person teaching. International students at a school operating in-person are allowed to take one class online, and students at a hybrid school (a mix of online and in-person teaching) must take the minimum number of online classes that they can. Vocational international students are not permitted to take any online classes.
Only 59% of the 1,100 colleges that The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking plan on opening in-person. Another 25% are planning a hybrid model, while 8% plan on being fully online. The rest are waiting to decide or considering multiple options. Yet the data only represents a fraction of the total US colleges, many of which have not released plans, or are staying flexible as cases soar.
The negative impact of barring international students from studying in the US would be huge: not only does the decision risk exacerbating the ongoing pandemic by forcing international travel, it risks economic as well as cultural ramifications for years to come.
According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education and Exchange, there were over 1 million international students at American universities and colleges in 2018/19, making up 5.5% of total students, but closer to 20% of student bodies at schools such as New York University, University of Southern California, Northeastern University, and Columbia University, to name just a few.
Most obviously, forcing herds of international students to fly during a pandemic is cause for concern: air travel was one of the industries hit the hardest because close proximity and extended period of time with others are the biggest factors in spreading the virus. In a survey of 512 epidemiologists, the New York Times found that 68% would wait until winter, next spring, or over a year to fly again. Between countries closing borders and airlines reducing flights, it could be both impossible and unsafe for students to return to their home countries.
Perhaps more importantly to the government, international students contribute heavily to the US economy, during and after their college years. International students contribute $41 billion to the economy, and have created or supported 458,000 jobs this past school year. NAFSA: Association of International Educators (NAFSA) estimates that US higher education will lose $3 billion in revenue from lack of enrollment by international students just due to the pandemic.
With a global recession, and record high unemployment, stifling the already dwindling number of international students who choose to come to the states for education will only hurt the students and their colleges during already difficult times.
The decreasing number of international students could be seen as a symptom of a larger issue: deglobalization. Carmen Reinhart, the world bank chief economist, told Bloomberg that while the 2009 recession, Brexit, and the US-China trade war all hurt globalization, “Covid-19 is the last nail in the coffin of globalization.” The trend of deglobalization has already caused the decline in international students for three consecutive years. NAFSA reports that 87% of international respondents claim that their main reason for not studying in the US was because they felt the US was unwelcoming to international students. In terms of education, a lack of globalization means the US will be cut off from the ideas and innovations that international students contribute. In a classroom, different perspectives propel critical discussions and help all students challenge themselves and others. The new SEVP rules give further reason for international students to not feel wanted, yet the response to the changes hopefully show that this is not the case.
An official petition against the SEVP changes has already reached over 270,000 signatures in the few days it has been open, meaning the White House has to give an official update within the next month. Perhaps they will provide an explanation for the changes, or any benefit it would bring, as right now there seems to be no reason or logic behind the decision.
Students are taking more creative approaches, like calling for their schools to create one in-person class for international students to take to avoid deportation, or switching classes with international friends to ensure they get an in-person class on their schedule.
Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have also filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) over the rules, writing that, “the effect – and perhaps even the goal – is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible.”
College campuses have been home to some of the biggest protests and cultural movements in the country, meaning that students do not take injustices lightly. With all of the backlash, hopefully, the ICE will rescind the amendments and realize the value that international students bring to the country, both economically and culturally.