The Crackdown on Foreign Students

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

There must be something unusually cruel amid a worldwide plague in trying to force international students to take possibly dangerous in-person higher education classes or face losing their U.S. visas or being deported. Colleges and universities are considering online courses for the fall because of a rampant COVID-19 that won’t recede.

The Trump administration, as eager to keep immigrants out of the United States as Charles Lindbergh was intent on ensuring America stayed out of World War II, last week issued the new ruling against the students through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency with the apropos acronym for its name.

California and some top universities such as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both in Cambridge, Mass., and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore immediately sued the administration to block the rule from taking effect. Harvard has announced it will offer only online courses for undergraduates for the fall semester. The University of California, with more than 27,000 international students, plans to file its own suit.

President Donald Trump, true to form and never to miss an opportunity to slam liberals, immediately counterattacked, threatening the tax-exempt status of higher learning institutions. The threat came with a right-wing political slap.

“Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left indoctrination, not Education,” he tweeted Friday, incorrectly using upper case letters. “Therefore, I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt status…”

Good luck with that. The Internal Revenue Service, a Treasury Department agency, which would review such a 501(c)(3) status, is barred by federal law from conducting such an investigation against institutions “based on their ideological beliefs,” according to the Hill newspaper.

Not only could the in-class ruling dissuade international students from returning to their colleges and universities next semester, but it could fulfill Trump’s sustained attempts to reduce the number of potential immigrants from entering the country.

Further, it has been clear since Trump began urging businesses to reopen with a three-phase plan announced April 16 that his objective was not saving lives but resurrecting the sagging economy to help ensure his reelection. Similarly, he has pressured schools and colleges and universities to reopen their classrooms, regardless of the consequences on Americans’ health. That’s how much he cares about others.

The objective of Trump, the self-declared “wartime president” who quickly retreated completely from the COVID-19 battlefield, is to make life look as pre-pandemic normal as possible in a bid to get Americans to put the virus behind them to help him get reelected. As usual, it’s all about Trump.

“Trump has power,” New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote Friday. “But in the face of COVID-19, he doesn’t use it to facilitate life as much as he does to dictate exposure to death.”

The heartache, the confusion, the expense that this new regulation must be causing to most of the international students, their teachers, their administrators and their parents must be beyond comprehension. What of the reputation of the United States? And for what? To satisfy the whims of a warped would-be dictator who may not have much time left in office?

Under the new rule, students will be barred from attending schools that provide only online courses. In schools that will divide their classes between online and in-person, students will be permitted to take one class or three credit hours of digital study. Students enrolled in schools that are fully online will not be issued visas.

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

The administration did not give advance warning about the rule to colleges and universities, which, as all schools nationwide from kindergarten on up, are agonizing over how to conduct in-person classes when there is no cure for the deadly COVID-19 and the number of daily infections has been increasing. About 134,000 Americans have died of the disease.

The lack of advance notice is typical operating procedure for the Trump administration, which conducts its foreign policy in much the same way. (See U.S. abandonment of allied Kurd forces in Syria.)

There were 1,095,099 international students during the 2018-2019 school year, an all-time high, according to the Institute of International Education. They contributed a whopping $44.7 billion to the economy in 2018. Most of the students were from China, with 369,548, and India, with 202,014. New York City was home to most of the international students because of New York and Columbia universities.

Harvard and M.I.T. said in requesting a court order that if the rule goes into effect the students “must abandon housing arrangements they have made, breach leases, pay exorbitant airfares and risk COVID-19 infection on transoceanic flights. And if their departure is not timely, they risk detention by immigration authorities and formal removal from the country that may bar their return to the United States for 10 years.”

As if times aren’t difficult enough with the pandemic and the worst joblessness since the Great Depression. This is the kind of impossible situation people must endure with an out-of-control president in charge of a country wobbling on the edge of despair.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.