Trump runs foreign students out of the country in a desperate move to return to ‘normal’

International students pump billions of dollars into the economy. Yet the Trump administration says they must leave if they take too many courses online because of COVID-19.

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The University of Illinois at Chicago campus. UIC and other schools in Illinois plan a mix of online and in-person teaching this fall.

A new Trump administration policy, announced Monday, could make a hash of efforts by the University of Illinois at Chicago and other schools to offer a workable mix of online and in-person courses this fall.

Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

We have one question about a Trump administration plan to force thousands of foreign college students to leave the country should their school go online because of COVID-19:

Why?

Why now, when dozens of states are seeing skyrocketing new cases of COVID-19 and colleges are struggling with how best to serve their students during this resurgent pandemic?

Why the rush? Why no advance warning? Why create even bigger problems for more than a million international students who already are struggling to carry on with their education in the United States in this time of global crisis?

Why is the Trump administration so eager to turn back smart and talented young people from around the world whose presence here only makes our campuses of higher learning, college towns and big cities more cosmopolitan, vibrant and diverse?

It’s not as if international students have been a burden. They pump an estimated $41 billion into the U.S. economy each year and support 458,290 jobs, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. In Illinois, 53,724 foreign students boost the economy by some $1.9 billion and support 25,855 jobs.

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Not normal times

On Monday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a decision — out of the blue and without explanation — to scrap a rules exemption, granted just months ago, that allows international students to remain in the U.S. while taking all their classes online. The exemption was created in response to the inconvenient fact that schools are shifting heavily — and sometimes exclusively — to online learning during the pandemic.

We appreciate why, in normal times, the federal rule against international students taking most or all of their classes online while residing here made sense. The intent was to guard against bogus “students” enrolling in bogus online “universities” just to gain legal entry into the country.

But need we point out the obvious? These are not normal times.

We can only assume that scrapping the exemption now is nothing more than another foolish effort by the Trump administration, eager to deny the truth of the pandemic, to force the country back to business as usual way too soon.

We also smell more than a hint of xenophobia. These are “foreign” students.

Get out or face deportation

The message from ICE to foreign students whose schools will be operating only online this fall is blunt: Get out now or get deported.

Or, ICE is saying, go ahead and take all those courses online. But do so from your own country, be it China or India or some other place four or five time zones away. Get up in the middle of the night for that physics class that starts in the U.S. at 9 a.m.

Or, as a third alternative, transfer to another U.S. school that will offer a sufficient number of in-person classes this fall and show up in person.

International students at dozens of schools that already have decided to go exclusively online this fall — 9% of 1,090 institutions tracked by the Chronicle of Higher Education — will have to make that no-win decision.

A new mess for local universities

Another 24% of schools are planning hybrid teaching with both in-person and online instruction. The University of Illinois system, the University of Chicago, Loyola, Concordia and Columbia College are among this group.

Students at these schools can remain in the U.S., but they also will face huge potential obstacles, as Neal McCrillis, vice provost for global engagement at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained to us.

Now that ICE has reimposed the pre-pandemic rule strictly limiting online course-taking, McCrillis said, UIC will have to re-examine the fall schedules of its almost 4,000 international students to make sure they meet the old standard. And that information must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in a mere three weeks.

“We spent two or three months working out how to offer these hybrid classes,” McGillis said. “Now we’re being thrown this huge curveball.”

Hundreds of other schools across the country are finding themselves in the same bind.

Will they ever return?

A raging pandemic is a bad time to impose hard-and-fast federal rules that handcuff colleges and universities from making the tough decisions that are best for their students and financial bottom line.

And nobody should be surprised if all those talented young people from abroad do, indeed, pick up and leave, never to return.

“At a time when new international student enrollment is in decline, our nation risks losing global talent with new policies that hurt us academically and economically,” as NAFSA Executive Director Esther D. Brimmer said Monday.

All because America’s got a president who wants to pretend away a deadly pandemic.

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