Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, Global, Government, Higher Ed, Public Health, Students

Eleventh-hour policy targeting international students is unjust

July 14, 2020 |5:27 min read

Flexibility, fairness and kindness are needed during pandemic

This post is adapted from a July 9 letter to the Gillings School community that was endorsed by most members of the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Dean’s Council. The text here reflects substantial revisions to the letter text. The opinions are mine, and I take responsibility for any errors or omissions.

What happened and why we wrote to the Gillings School community

On July 6, 2020, the U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), took millions by surprise when it promulgated a new policy on online learning (see key excerpt below) that rescinded temporary guidance for the program. The new guidance left U.S. colleges and universities scrambling to protect more than a million new and returning international students. Because of this ill-conceived and poorly timed policy directive, many international students have been overwhelmed with a new set of requirements, complicated by a pandemic and the incredibly short response time permitted.

News Release
SEVP modifies temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online courses during fall 2020 semester  
Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. 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. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings. …

The policy may have unintended consequences. Besides the many benefits that colleges and universities receive from international students, and the students presumably gain from their educational experiences in the U.S., international students also are an important economic engine, generating an estimated $40 billion annually in support to universities, and, by extension, their regions.

We wrote to the Gillings School community to convey our strong support for our international students. We wanted our international students to know that we value and support them and will work furiously to protect them and their educational opportunities. More detailed information would follow.

At the time we wrote, UNC-Chapel Hill, like most universities, was responding quickly to the new policy, attempting to determine what would and would not be considered compliant. People across the university, including several from the Gillings School, mobilized immediately to learn the scope of the policy, reach out to international students, consider what actions would be most helpful, educate faculty and staff, and inform students about their options and resources available. Much was happening, even as we were writing; for example, a legal challenge from Harvard and MIT, and then two separate suits from California’s state universities and state community college system.

Our message to the Gillings School community (adapted from letter)

Leaders of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health want our international students to know that we welcome them, value them, and we stand with them. Our international students came to the university in good faith and are part of our community. Our relationships are reciprocal. They learn and benefit from being here, but we also benefit. We are sad, disappointed, and, frankly, angry about the July 6 policy from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prohibiting international students within the United States to be enrolled fully in online, remote courses to maintain their visa status in fall 2020. It is appalling that international students in the U.S. with F-1 (and related) visas, whose courses may be online-only due to COVID-19, are being threatened with immigration consequences if they take all courses remotely while in the U.S.

Online instruction is an accepted mode of academic training, and it is an essential option for delivering high-quality education in the time of COVID-19. All our students – including international students – should be able to continue their education remotely, if needed. It would be irresponsible not to provide remote learning options if circumstances require it.

Opposition to ICE Policy. We are opposed strongly to the new ICE policy. It is counter to U.S. interests, unnecessary, unreasonable, and cruel. It will cause deep distress and potential financial and educational hardship for students currently enrolled in U.S. institutions and discourage talented international students from attending U.S. institutions of higher education in the future. The policy will cause grievous harm to universities at a time when they are reeling from the effects of COVID-19. In a pandemic this country has not yet controlled, it is unfair and mean-spirited to punish international students for something over which they have no control. If the policy is intended to force universities to open without at least some courses being remote, it also is murderous. To institute the policy now, nearly at the last minute, before fall classes start across the country, leaves students potentially stranded in a sea of uncertainty without life rafts. We empathize with Gillings students and all international students.

Public health is global health. It is counter to U.S. interests to bar international students from college campuses. We are the Gillings School of Global Public Health. We want and need international students, faculty and staff to solve global and local problems, to be part of global collaborations, and to learn about the world with humility, as global citizens. Public health problems are not limited by national borders, as COVID-19 shows. Public health is local and global, and our domestic students must be trained alongside our students from other countries.

Our actions. We will support our international students and work with others at UNC-Chapel Hill to give them the best advice possible and help them make decisions that will enable them to achieve their educational goals. We will adapt our plans, where possible, to achieve compliance with the new policy so our international students can continue their education, even though we find the policy abhorrent.

We will add our voices and actions to those of other organizations to achieve greater impact. Thus, we join the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) in calling for Congress and the courts “to reverse these mean, misguided policy changes, intended to marginalize those whose only crime is to seek to improve the health of everyone, everywhere.” ASPPH brings the strength of its organization and more than 100 public health schools and programs. We can achieve more together. Individual faculty members also are working with their professional organizations to speak loudly about these issues. We speak out in many ways, including through our roles on campus. We encourage every member of the Gillings community to act, including by making their views known to state and national legislators, regardless of party, and by voting in the November election.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.