Trinity University Scrambles to Protect International Students After ICE Requires In-Person Classes

click to enlarge Trinity University is one of the Texas schools grappling with how to deal with an ICE rule requiring international students to attend most of their classes in person. - Courtesy Photo / Trinity University
Courtesy Photo / Trinity University
Trinity University is one of the Texas schools grappling with how to deal with an ICE rule requiring international students to attend most of their classes in person.
In March, when colleges and universities across the country transitioned to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement waived a requirement that international students studying in the U.S. must attend most of their classes in person.

However, last Monday, with infections, hospitalizations and deaths spiking in much of the U.S., ICE announced that it had reinstated the requirement — meaning international students taking exclusively online courses in the fall would be barred from the country.

"Sometimes we get a heads-up and an opportunity for us to communicate how certain rules are going to affect us," said Katsuo Nishikawa, director of the Center for International Engagement at Trinity University.

"Previous administrations have used that feedback time to address unexpected consequences of their decisions," he continued. "In this case, we didn't see that."

The result is an extra, intense layer of uncertainty for colleges and universities to navigate as the beginning already uncertain academic year approaches.

The vast majority of Texas universities are planning to open their campuses in the fall and hold at least some classes in person. That would, theoretically, give international students the opportunity to meet visa requirements.

But the rise of COVID-19 cases across the state is threatening those plans.

The University of Texas at San Antonio, for instance, announced Wednesday that it would hold the majority of its fall classes online and only offer select courses in person.

Contingency Planning

Other schools outside the state, including Harvard University, have announced plans to hold all fall classes online. Harvard, along with a number of other institutions, is now suing the Trump administration over the ICE guideline in federal court.

Nishikawa said Trinity, like many other colleges and universities, has a contingency plan to move to fully remote instruction in the fall if it becomes necessary.

But if the ICE guideline stands, it seems Trinity would be unable to transition to a fully online semester and still protect its international students from deportation.

Many faculty members at Trinity and elsewhere have already opted to teach remotely in the fall because of the health risks to themselves, their families, or their students.
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the ICE directive, professors have stepped up, Nishikawa said.

"Faculty have come out of the woodwork to let me know that, if we need to have an in-person class just for [international students], they will make that adjustment," he added.

"These are people who have pre-existing conditions to people at the height of their physical fitness," he continued. "They're all volunteering to open a class or change a class so that an international student in their class can benefit."

English professor Kelly Grey Carlisle — who is planning to teach her creative writing classes in a hybrid format with some instruction taking place in person, outdoors, and the rest online — is one of those professors.

After she saw the ICE announcement on Monday, she tweeted, "[If] you're a Trinity international student who needs a non-online class and can't find one that better fits your program, I will make room for you."

In an interview with the Current, Carlisle said the ICE directive sets up dangerous and unnecessary choices for faculty and students alike.

"People have to put themselves at risk or they have to put their students at risk," Carlisle said. "If we're supposed to be promoting public health, this seems like a really unwise decision."

Targeting Immigrant Populations

From the outset, the Trump administration's COVID-19 response has targeted immigrants and other vulnerable populations.

In March, the Center for Disease Control implemented a guideline allowing ICE to deport any person who enters the country without authorization, even if they are making an asylum claim.

Both Nishikawa and Carlisle said that this ICE guideline has another ulterior motive: Trump has been quite clear about his desire for schools to reopen in the fall, and this measure, by itself, seems set to force universities' hands.

"It feels like something that is meant to hurt higher education," Carlisle said. "A lot of colleges really rely on international tuition dollars — so it's like, either we're going to take that [money] away from you and hurt your students, or we'll make you take them, and maybe get sick, and hurt people that way."

The importance of international student tuitions to higher education — especially to public institutions of higher education — is difficult to overstate.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018 — often paying full tuition fees at universities. In doing so, they subsidize the education of a number of domestic students.

With higher education already facing an uncertain financial future due to the pandemic, that tuition revenue is even more important.

Nishikawa, who himself came to the U.S. as an international student from Mexico, said the ICE directive will have a lasting impact on the U.S.'s ability to attract and retain international students as other predominantly English-speaking countries work to recruit them.

More immediately, the health and safety of international students already studying in the U.S. is at risk.

"I don't want to make it sound like [international students] are cash cows or something," Carlisle said. "They're always the dearest, best students. They're lovely human beings, and they're really smart, and they're doing this in a foreign language."

She added: "I'm most worried about [them]. It has to feel horrible."
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